What will the hacking scandal change?

I’m afraid I’ve been swept along by the drama of the hacking scandal, even as the Euro heads for meltdown, the US for financial suicide, and famine ravages the Horn of Africa.  I watched the Murdochs before the Select Committee on Tuesday afternoon, and spend more time than I should reading online articles.  The human drama is compelling, with a steady stream of people coming a cropper.  But as I posted last week I am a lot less sure about longer term consequences for the press and politics in general.

There may be further damage to come for News Corporation.  Rupert Murdoch at the hearing said that “this is the humblest day of my life”, and that was his clear intention – to halt the damage at that point.  He was appropriately contrite and respectful.  But he clearly equates his organisation with himself.  He seemed puzzled with the suggestion that he might resign.  He feels betrayed by people he trusted, and that’s it.  The success of his damage limitation depends on what further comes out.  Anything that gives the affair legs in the US could be toxic; he has plenty of enemies there.  In the UK the worst is probably over; there will be prolonged skirmishing over who said what to whom, which will get insiders worked up, but not the public at large.  People already suspect the worst, so the damage is already largely done.  It would help him a lot if similar issues emerged at other newspapers.  If everybody is to blame, nobody is.  The Murdochs quite rightly steered clear making any suggestions that other organisations were just as bad, but it must be on their minds.

The Police, and especially the Met, are the next victims.  But again I think the worst might be over.  People suspect rampant police corruption, with journalists paying for information.  I doubt whether much of this actually went on.  I’m sure it used to, but it really is at odds with modern police culture.  The police have provided lots of information to journalists, but not in exchange for bribes.  The police were much too close to the press, as were Tory and Labour politicians, but it will be difficult to pin this down to what people euphemistically call “wrongdoing” – i.e. actual criminal offences as opposed to the merely  unethical.  One or two individuals may get caught out, but they are likely to be more junior than those already forced to resign.

Next in the firing line is David Cameron.  Ed Milliband has decided that he is vulnerable, and has been banging away endlessly about his employment of Andy Coulson.  His discussions with the Murdoch organisation over the BSkyB bid has opened up a new line of attack.  This may have some way to run, but it doesn’t feel fatal.  The whole Coulson affair has been pretty open; there are no fingerprints on the BSkyB issue, though Mr Cameron’s evasions are not doing him any good.  There’s a good article from Steve Richards in the Independent on this.  Some of the shine is coming off Mr Cameron, but to my mind this was always coming to him.  His performance as PM has been less than assured, notwithstanding his Etonian self-confidence, and I have been amazed that it has taken this long for people to see through it.  There’s no serious alternative to him in the Tory party, and talk of him having to resign is just typical of the silly chatter that can build up.

Mr Milliband, by contrast, has done quite well.  Enough to keep his rivals at bay (and there are serious alternatives in the Labour Party), but not enough to allay wider doubts.  There are some signs of a Lib Dem  recovery – but not because any of their figures are playing a prominent role, despite efforts to boost Vince Cable for being the first to “declare war” on the Murdochs.  In fact it was his foolish loose talk that deprived him of a serious role in the affair.

One change may be long lasting – and that is the influence of the tabloids.  Tony Blair set the trend of very close relationships with them, not least by his employment of Alistair Campbell as his communications adviser.  In his time Mr Campbell was lionised, as being the power behind the throne.  He spent a lot of his energy setting up meetings with tabloid editors and, indeed, owners.  Having set the trend, everybody else followed.  Including the Metropolitan Police and Mr Cameron.  As the light is being shone on this, it doesn’t look so clever.   The cosy relationship has ceased.  Steve Richards has again written very well on this.

The tabloids play a unique role in British politics, in delivering the sort of attack material that in the US is done by television advertising.  I won’t forget the anti-Clegg frenzy unleashed by them in the last weeks of the 2010 General Election.  It’s small wonder that politicians have sought access to this power.  But tabloids are a declining market, with more and more people getting their news from the internet.  Younger media owners, not excluding James Murdoch, are more interested in readership than in throwing their weight around to influence politics. This affair may mark a decisive episode in the decline of the tabloids’ role in politics.