We haven’t seen anything like this since the MPs expenses scandal in 2009. Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire is the centre of a media and political feeding frenzy provoked initially by outrage over mobile phone hacking, and now taking in dodgy relationships with the Police and management cover-up and dissembling. Murdoch has had to close one highly successful paper, and now he’s withdrawn his bid for 100% of BSkyB. Commentators are using metaphors such as earthquakes and the shifting of tectonic plates.
Frankly I find it impossible not to enjoy this spectacle. Murdoch and his acolytes are hard-nosed businessmen who would not have thought twice about meting out the sort of stuff they are now victims of. We can only imaging what The Sun would be saying about the photogenic Rebecca Brooks, the senior manager at the centre of the scandal, where it not part of the Murdoch empire. What’s more Mr Murdoch clearly had undue political influence, and liked hold politicians in fear – and now it is wonderful to see how politicians behave once that fear is lost. And his influence was in no way benign, in favour of biased news, extreme Euroscepticism, and stoking up prejudice generally.
But will any lasting good come of it? It doesn’t bother me that other, equally evil press barons have so far escaped unscathed. Indeed widening the scope might diminish the punishment – it is surely more effective to totally dismantle one evil empire than damage several a bit. The others will draw conclusions from Murdoch’s fate.
But the political earthquake of the MPs expenses scandal did not change very much, after its deserved and undeserved victims were buried. The same prejudices and appetites that Murdoch fed on persist. Others will move into any empty space that he vacates. And it is almost impossible to regulate it properly. It is difficult to believe that the public enquiry will change very much. Indeed the political consensus around keeping its scope very broad might serve to weaken and dilute its effect.
But in amongst this battle there is one thing worth fighting to protect. That is the regulation of news broadcasting in TV and radio, and the primacy of the BBC. As this Bagehot column makes clear (see the end of the article), Murdoch clearly wants to establish a Fox News in the UK to do to TV what his print newspapers have done to that medium. The BSkyB takeover was part of that strategy. The baleful influence of this is all too clear from this poll which shows that TV and radio are the only medium that retains a high degree of trust in the UK, and that distrust of the press here is much higher than elsewhere in Europe.
The savages were circling. They’ve been seen off for now. But we must stay vigilant.