Amid all the reportage of the crumbling of the Murdoch empire, one important matter has been glossed over. Why did it happen at all? It wouldn’t have but for three events. The first is the tenacity of the Guardian, despite all the fob-offs from the police, the politicians and News International over a period of 5 years. Second was the stunning revelation on 4 July that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked into and some of the messages deleted to make way for more, which could only have been leaked from the notes of Glen Mulcaire, the NoW private investigator, held by the police. This started the wave of national revulsion against the Murdoch tactics. Third was Ed Miliband’s decision to cut loose from the Murdoch stranglehold and stage a Parliamentary debate to demand that the BSkyB bid be delayed till the public inquiry and police investigation were completed, which Cameron was then forced to back. Without each of these triggers the fall of Murdoch might well not now be happening. There are serious lessons here to be learnt.
The first is that the mechanisms of accountability in this country have all but collapsed. The Mafia-like state within a state has been able to corrupt the police, the government and the regulators for a decade or more without the alarm being raised effectively so as to enforce a crackdown on persistent institutionalised criminality. Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met Commissioner, formally advised the Guardian that their allegations about phone-hacking were exaggerated and misleading, but as we now know he had secretly taken on Neil Wallis, the former NoW deputy editor, as his media adviser and had also accepted a £12,000 freebie from a health spa whose PR adviser was again Wallis. Gordon Brown failed to institute a public inquiry into NoW hacking in 2009 when Gus O’Donnell sought to block it by arguing (suspiciously) that it would involve the judges in politics too close to the election. And Thatcher, at Murdoch’s bidding, rescinded the law prohibiting cross-ownership between the broadcast and print media, thus opening the way for Murdoch’s highly lucrative deals in satellite TV.
The second major lesson lies in Cameron’s shameful twists and turns seeking by every means possible to hand Murdoch what he wanted until the tsunami of revulsion and Miliband’s parliamentary tactics forced him kicking and objecting to fall in behind the Labour leader. Would Cameron have given Murdoch BSkyB? Undoubtedly yes. Did he cut the BBC’s funding drastically after repeated onslaughts from the Murdoch camp? Yes with a vengeance. Would he have agreed the Murdoch demand that the ban on political bias in broadcasting be lifted so that the equivalent of Fox News could be thrust, Tea Party-like, down British throats? Almost certainly yes.
Our delivery from all this came only in the nick of time. But the vacuum opened up by the Murdoch collapse has urgently now got to be filled by the radical modernisation of media governance.