This is a unique opportunity for reform and we need greater scrutiny, but not by sacrificing a free press
by Henry Porter, The Observer
Moral outrage can become tedious as well as draining, so it is time to move on and decide how to stop a man such as Rupert Murdoch having such power in our society again.
But we should take a moment to acknowledge that we were a lot better off at the end of the week than we were at the beginning. Rebekah Brooks has gone; the BSkyB deal is dead; James Murdoch should certainly lose his job as chairman of the broadcaster; that old player Les Hinton deposited his own head on a platter in the general rush to atonement; and Rupert Murdoch took space in the competition to say he was sorry and mumbled apologies to an ordinary family. This great bad man, as the convict Conrad Black knowingly described him in the FT, has been humiliated and is finished.
It happened so fast that you could hardly keep track of it and there is still juice left in this scandal. Brooks and the Murdochs appear in front the Culture, Media and Sport select committee on Tuesday; and Sir Paul Stephenson answers questions from the Home Affairs committee. Because of the speed of events, we have not properly considered the prime minister's position, but let's be clear that the person who has most to lose in the coming week is David Cameron. I may be going out on limb here, but I think his reputation and authority might be critically damaged.
One of the more shaming aspects of the phone-hacking affair and all the interlocking circles of corruption and compromise is that they expose a huge failure in my generation, which has allowed Murdoch to enmesh our politics, media and police. After opposing his activities for a good part of that period, even I have been astonished at the levels of penetration he achieved – not just a man, Andy Coulson, beside the prime minister at Downing Street and Chequers, before and after resignation, but a former News of the World executive discovered to be advising the head of the Metropolitan Police, just as the phone-hacking scandal began to get serious two years ago.
After the election last year, nothing changed. In fact, the Conservative-led coalition allowed even greater access to these dreadful people and was about to return favours by waving through the BSkyB purchase, a deal that was palpably against the interests of British society. The full accounting on this has not properly begun. What undertakings were given before the poll? We need assurances that phone-hacking and other covert methods were not used during the last few elections.
But let's get back to the future. As a friend of mine insisted, this is a unique opportunity. We have to strike now or see a gradual reversion to the status quo that existed before this scandal.
What we should have done years ago was to limit the ownership of national newspapers and broadcasting companies by any one individual or concern, whatever the profitability of their enterprises. Murdoch owned four newspapers and 39% of BSkyB. That is far too much. Richard Desmond controls four newspapers and Channel 5. That is far too much. Suggestions that an individual should only be allowed one daily and one Sunday title, or a broadcasting company, are a start, but the purpose must be to defend us against accumulation of power by one man. Our legislators and regulators should start work immediately and think about the unaccountable might of internet giants as well.
It is clear that Britain needs fully functioning privacy legislation, not the feeble guarantees in the Human Rights Act that Jack Straw was boasting about last week. Everyone high and low needs protection from the tabloids, the web and the state. This unimaginative, rather shallow government has shown no inclination to grapple with the threat to privacy offered from so many quarters. It throws up its hands and points to the self-invasions and global nature of the web. But a free society cannot exist unless this fundamental right is meaningfully supported by laws, which apply equally to the Earthbound British tabloids as to Google, which, for instance, tailors its operations to comply with laws in China. A strong public interest defence would be part of new legislation.
We need firm and intelligent regulation of the media, but we shouldn't allow politicians to use this to hobble a free press and so become even less accountable. The lesson of the last week is that the public requires greater scrutiny and accountability in all areas of the establishment. Politicians and journalists should not underestimate the public's anger or the way it might develop.
One of the most disturbing parts of this scandal is the light cast on the police. It has been shocking to witness former and current assistant commissioners Andy Hayman and John Yates blatantly squirming in public. Even more so to watch Neil Wallis, formerly of the News of the World, slink from the shadows of Met commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson's office after his arrest. Yates and Sir Paul should go immediately. Then we need a complete examination of the ethics, culture, effectiveness and recruitment policies of the British police. Some of this will be covered by the inquiry into the police investigations into phone-hacking, but a more general assessment of their fitness for the modern age is urgently required.
A lasting legacy of the Murdoch era is one of diminished standards. So much of what he touched was degraded and trashed and at the heart of this gradual process of debasement was our own tolerance. Murdoch played to our worst instincts and he is responsible for a fair amount of the heartlessness, coarseness and spite we see every day in the tabloid press.
For example, stories in the Daily Mail frequently demean its readers. The proprietor of Associated Newspapers, Lord Rothermere, should address the standards of his papers or one day he too may find his advertisers vanishing overnight. The Mail has done sterling work in the area of personal freedom and racism and I am not advocating puritanical or castrated newspapers, simply a renewal of standards about what is unacceptable and cruel.
The public needs to address its attitudes too – the contempt for the private and inner lives of the famous and the disregard for the pain of ordinary people is what led Murdoch's journalists to hack phones and pay the police. Let's start by grasping that respect for privacy, our own and other people's, is a civic responsibility, a moral obligation, which should be applied with the same rigour as the laws concerning property.
Politicians should be thinking these things and leading the debate about where we find ourselves this weekend. Instead, they are shuffling their feet and wondering how to save their skins. With the expulsion of Rupert Murdoch from our national life, we have a glorious opportunity for meaningful reform: let's seize it.