Dispatch

Revenge of the MPs

Revenge of the MPs

Let us not be taken in by the horror, and the stone-faced cries of "shame!" now evinced by politicians of all stripes in Britain at the "shocking," "ghastly," behavior of News of the World and the Murdoch media empire. Let’s be clear: This is not horror; it’s revenge with a healthy side dish of schadenfreude.

The nature of the abusive relationship between Britain’s tabloid press and its politicians was perhaps best illustrated way back in 1992. Britain had just been forced to withdraw, humiliatingly, from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. John Major, the Conservative prime minister, called Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of the Sun, to ask how the tabloid planned to cover the story. MacKenzie’s reply has become a matter of Fleet Street legend. "Well, John, let me put it this way," said MacKenzie. "I’ve got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk, and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head."

Funny? Perhaps. But also revolting, not only because of the image, but because of the sense of entitlement and zeal for bullying it revealed. This week the balance of power has, for the time being, shifted; for the first time in decades, it is the tabloid press that’s on the receiving end.

And what a wallop they’re taking. Rupert Murdoch’s decision to withdraw his bid to purchase a majority stake in the satellite broadcaster BSkyB represents a political triumph for Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party. It’s Miliband who has been leading the movement questioning the Australian-born media tycoon’s fitness to pass the broadcast regulator Ofcom’s "fit and proper" test of character for media proprietors. By the evening of Tuesday, July 12, it was clear all parties agreed that Murdoch should, at the very least, put his bid on hold pending the report of a hastily established public inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal.

But Murdoch’s acquiescence also represents a sea change in British public life. Murdoch, to put it mildly, is not used to being beaten. Since he arrived in Britain in 1968, he has steadily risen to become the most influential media baron of the age — perhaps the last remaining press baron, the like of whom will never be seen again. So it is remarkable that in the space of just seven days he has been forced to close the News of the World, his most profitable British newspaper, and now, to end his pursuit of the long-coveted BSkyB. He no longer seems capable of intimidating the political establishment by threatening to unleash the fury of his media empire. For once, the biter has been bitten.

There was a palpable sense in the House of Commons on Wednesday of Parliament fighting back — not only on behalf of the British people, but also on behalf of themselves — against the country’s rapacious newspaper culture.

In truth, few Britons objected when the victims of tabloid zeal were the rich and famous or, even better, politicians. They were considered "fair game" — public figures who should know that tabloid intrusion was part of the celebrity circus, the life they had chosen. It was only when the victims were revealed to also include "ordinary people," such as the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and Afghanistan veterans that the public mood turned against the tabloid pack. Few readers harbored illusions about the nature of the papers they bought, but they preferred not to dwell on these realities. Now that it’s open season on the tabloids, the public, hypocritical as ever, is happy to cheer on the flogging.

But the public outrage has given Parliament an opportunity to reassert its prerogatives and properly investigate a scandal that implicates the Metropolitan Police, politicians of all parties, and the biggest press baron of them all, Murdoch. There are few innocents on Fleet Street or at Westminster, but this, as Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday, has become a moment for "cleaning stables."

Although attention has largely focused on the shady activities of the Murdoch newspapers, it would be wrong to conclude that they are the only publications in the dock. Almost every major newspaper in Britain is implicated to one degree or another in the scandal. All have records of paying for information obtained by questionable means; many editors are probably quietly thankful now that they were simply not as good at it as their competitors at the News of the World and the Sun.

The practical benefit of the tabloids’ special cynicism, aside from sales, was the leverage they gained over politicians. Tony Blair, recalling the way previous Labour leaders had been "monstered" by the Murdoch press, flew to Australia to ingratiate himself with News Corp. executives. Proving to Murdoch that Labour was changing and could be trusted to lead was an indispensable part of Blair’s path to Downing Street. 

The Murdoch papers were not initially impressed by the Eton and Oxford-educated Cameron when he surprisingly became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, and Cameron, in turn, initially kept his distance from the Murdoch empire. Peter Oborne, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, has reported that Cameron’s first meetings with Murdoch went poorly. According to one leading News International figure: "We told David exactly what to say and how to say it in order to please Rupert. But Cameron wouldn’t play ball. I can’t understand it."

The tabloids prefer winners to losers. That was one reason that they soured on John Major and backed Blair. When Gordon Brown succeeded Blair, he attempted to curry favor with News International. His wife Sarah guest-edited an edition of the News of the World‘s magazine; and the Browns hosted Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter, and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International and onetime News of the World editor, at Chequers, the prime minister’s country mansion.

It was not until Cameron was persuaded by close associates, among them the present Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, to hire Andy Coulson as his director of communications (that is, chief spin doctor) in 2007 that Murdoch’s papers began to warm to the young Tory leader. Indeed, Coulson was hired for just this reason, even though he’d been compelled to resign as editor of the News of the World after an earlier scandal involving the hacking of the phones of members of the royal family. Nevertheless, Cameron insisted, Coulson deserved a "second chance" — a decision that the prime minister now undoubtedly regrets. Cameron is fortunate that Coulson left Downing Street earlier this year, largely because he could not escape his tabloid past. Imagine how bad it would look if Coulson — now subject to a criminal investigation himself was still on the prime minister’s payroll.

There is no denying that the Murdoch tabloids’ influence extends deep into Cameron’s party. In late 2008, the papers made it clear that they would not endorse the Conservatives in the next election unless Cameron sacked Dominic Grieve, his then shadow home secretary, who was perceived by the papers as being insufficiently tough on crime. Grieve was duly moved to another portfolio in 2009, easing the path to the vital News International endorsement. In other words, the tabloids enjoyed an effective veto over a vital aspect of government policy. That dependence on Murdoch, unsurprisingly, produced resentment among politicians, which is now being expressed in all-out enmity.

Such strife between Parliament and mighty press lords is nothing new. During World War I, the press barons — especially Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Times and the Daily Mail — brought down Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s government after a campaign that mixed genuine investigative journalism (into munitions provision) and personal animosity. In the 1930s, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin complained that newspapers demanding "Baldwin Must Go" sought "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express and later minister for aircraft production during World War II, cheerfully admitted that the main pleasure of owning newspapers was the opportunity it gave him to publish propaganda for his own views. (Prime Minister Clement Attlee dryly noted that Winston Churchill often listened to Beaverbrook’s advice but was too sensible to take it.)

Many ministers of Parliament are eager now to exact some revenge. Some still bear the scars of the expenses scandal during the last parliamentary session that owed much to the Daily Telegraph‘s willingness to pay for stolen information. Members believed that the innocent and the blameless were pursued as relentlessly as the guilty by a press pack whose nihilism was happy to destroy any remaining public faith in the institution of Parliament itself.

In this latest scandal, Parliament isn’t the only, or the primary, public institution at risk; the Metropolitan Police’s relationship with the newspapers is one of the most fascinating — and disturbing — aspects of the scandal. As far back as 2002, News International executives told a parliamentary committee that their papers paid police officers. Yet this, like many other aspects of collusion between the press and the police, was never properly investigated.

Today, however, there is a sense that as Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes put it, "the sun is setting on Rupert Murdoch’s British empire." That may yet prove too hasty a judgment — Murdoch is nothing if not a survivor — but as this story lurches from one astonishing development to another it is possible that this will be remembered as the week in which a dragon was slain and British public life changed forever. For the time being, politicians have lost their fear of the fearsome British tabloid press. Parliament has found its voice, and for the first time in decades it is the press that’s afraid of the politicians. The hunters are now the hunted.