- The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection
The phone hacking scandal at The News of the World has thrown a spotlight onto a murky culture of collusion and corruption among politicians, the press and the police, whose existence is unlikely to surprise anybody with a rudimentary understanding of those institutions. Nor, sadly, is it surprising that hundreds of News of the Worldworkers will now lose their jobs for the crimes and mistakes of News International managers. News International clearly regards its workers, along with the victims of its hacking, as fair game. In fact, this scandal presents some opportunities for the Murdoch empire. While the News of the World scandal clearly represents an enormous set-back for the Sun King, it will at least allow him to rationalise his newspaper business as the profitability of tabloid newspapers declines. For the non-Murdoch media (such as the BBC, The Guardian and The Daily Mail) and the anti-Murdoch factions of the British state, meanwhile, the scandal is a godsend.
Unsurprisingly, however, the political dimensions of the phone hacking affair have been ignored in the mainstream media, even by self-styled 'investigative' journalists. In a Spectator article entitled 'What the papers won't say', Peter Oborne castigates politicians and the media for failing to link the scandal to Murdoch's ambitions for BSkyB and asks what he sees as a neglected question: 'whether the owner of News International is any longer a "fit and proper" person to occupy such a dominant position in the British media'. Oborne is pushing at an open door here. The question of Murdoch's moral fitness for mega-moguldom certainly is being raised in those parts of the mainstream media not owned by him (such as The Spectator) and it now looks likely that the decision on Murdoch's BSkyB bid will be deferred, at the very least.
If Oborne really wants to ski off-piste, here are a few questions that actually havebeen ignored by the mainstream media. We know, of course, that the story was broken by The Guardian's Nick Davies; but the question remains: why? Which of Murdoch's many enemies 'pressed the button' on phone hacking? And why now? For obvious reasons, definitive answers to such specific questions are hard to come by; but there can be no doubt that there are elements within the British state that are hostile to Murdoch's pro-US agenda and for whom Murdoch's domination of the British media following a BSkyB takeover was not a welcome prospect. To understand the eruption of this scandal as a well-timed intervention in an inter-bourgeois faction fight is not to embrace a 'conspiracy theory', but to understand that the practical co-operation of various state factions is forever prone to breaking down, giving way to what Marx, in the third volume of Capital, called a 'fight of hostile brothers' whose outcome is 'decided by power and craftiness'.
And here's another largely neglected question: since 'respected' media organisations such as the BBC systematically mislead the public (to take only the most egregious current example, the BBC is blacking out news of the popular movements in Spain and Greece), why do we reserve our moral outrage only for the Murdoch press? The News of the World's news gathering practices are appallingly cynical, it is true. But amid all of the moralising about tabloid journalism, it is worth remembering that in terms of their fundamental ideological commitments, the BBC and Murdoch are on the same side. Indeed, left-liberal complaints about the 'corporate' media and 'neoliberalism' (a concept whose conceptual coherence I have questioned here) all too often underestimate the profound and relentless ideological manipulations of the liberal press and the public service broadcasters.
There may be trouble ahead for that toothless tiger the Press Complaints Commission and tighter press regulation is surely on its way. But there is every probability that this scandal will ultimately only reinforce the power of the British state and its propaganda system, as James Heartfield, with characteristic insight, suggests. In a process that recalls the ruling class's recuperation of the MPs' expenses scandal in 2009, the public outrage over the News of the World's malpractice is being exploited for moral capital by the liberal political and media establishments, as they congratulate themselves for fishing a few rotten apples from the barrel. Nick Clegg, for example, has been assuring the public that the ongoing investigations into the scandal constitute an opportunity to strengthen British democracy.
Meanwhile, left-wing figures such as Neil Kinnock and New Statesman's loyal Labour acolyte Mehdi Hasan have been praising the Labour leader Ed Milliband for standing up to the Murdoch empire, despite the painfully obvious fact that Milliband found his conscience, like all of the politicians, only after news of the scandal broke. The ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is now claiming that he, too, consistently stood up to the Murdoch empire, resisting News Corporation's attempts to bully him into curtailing the activities of the media regulator Ofcom in 2009. But while Brown's disagreements with Murdoch points to the origin of this scandal in the political divisions within the ruling class, Brown's moral grandstanding will not wash: after all, Brown and his wife attended many News International events in recent years.
Clearly, even if we accept the dominant framing of the News of the World scandal as an unforeseen 'crisis' of journalism and not as a well-planned take-down, it is a crisis that is now being exploited by politicians as they seek to reassure the public of the fundamental soundness of the political and media systems.
In their reactions to the News of the World scandal, liberal academics, too, have tended to frame the phone hacking scandal as an aberration, stressing the need for a robustly ethical journalism that fulfils its proper mandate to question power and promote democratic deliberation. Yet all of this assumes that liberal democracy (or even, as the soft-nationalist platitude has it, 'our democracy') is desirable - and that the primary role of political journalism is to promote it. It also assumes that there can, under capitalism, be such a thing as a 'free press' that 'speaks truth to power' - a notion that has been nicely demolished by the International Communist Tendency.
These normative assumptions about democracy and the crusading role of journalism as a fourth estate may give comfort to those who have been understandably sickened by recent revelations. From a more radical perspective, however, they can be seen as discursive 'strategies of containment' (in Fredric Jameson's phrase) that serve to arrest critical reflection on the contradictions of capitalism and the macro-ideological operations of the news media. We should instead, I would argue, see the corruption revealed in the scandal not as an aberration, but as part and parcel of the ordinary workings of the democratic state. We should also see Murdoch's humbling not as a triumph for democratic transparency or a setback for global 'neoliberalism', as many on the left have done, but as the curbing and entrammelling of one faction of the British state by another. And we should be very clear that the ultimate function of mainstream political journalism - whether it comes from the BBC, The Guardian or News International - is not to question and investigate those in power, but to serve their interests.