Can Britain survive tabloid fever?
Britain’s drama has penetrated even the carapace of American self-preoccupation.
Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein compares it to Watergate. Hugh Grant appeals to Americans to wake up to Rupert Murdoch’s pernicious influence on their own media. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) calls for an inquiry into the activities of Murdoch’s parent company, News Corp., and whether Americans’ phones were hacked. If it turns out that 9/11 victims were targeted, as suggested by the campaigning British MP Tom Watson, then this will no longer be just a foreign story. Only on Murdoch-owned Fox News is it as if none of this had happened. A clip from “Fox News Watch,” filmed during a commercial break, shows the panelists joking about the one story they are not going to discuss. News watch indeed.
But what does it all mean?
“A kind of British Spring is underway,” writes the media columnist David Carr in the New York Times. “Democracy, aided by sunlight, has broken out in Britain.” Hyperbole, of course, but he has a point.
I’d put it like this: The Murdoch debacle reveals a disease that has been slowly clogging the heart of the British state for the last 30 years. This is the heart attack that warns you that you are sick but also gives you the chance to emerge healthier than you were before. The root cause of this British disease has been mighty, ruthless, out-of-control media power; its main symptom has been fear.
To talk of a British Spring, by analogy to the Arab Spring, is obviously poetic exaggeration. Compared to most other places in the world, Britain is a free country. In many ways, it is a better one now than it was when Murdoch bought the Times of London in 1981. But at the apex of British public life, there have been men and women walking around with fear in their hearts, and fear is inimical to freedom.
This was a self-deceiving cowardice that cloaked itself in silence, euphemism and excuse. Inwardly, politicians, spin doctors, PR men, public figures and, it now emerges, even senior police officers said to themselves: Don’t take on Murdoch. Never go up against the tabloids.
Murdoch and company used shameless, unscrupulous and illegal intrusions into privacy both to sell newspapers, by titillating a celebrity-hungry public with intimate details, and to secure political influence.
If the tabloids had not actually gone after you, the threat was always there. In Russia, they call it kompromat: compromising material, ready to be used if you step too far out of line. We now know that the hacks and their hackers stopped at no one and at nothing. The royal family, families of British soldiers killed in action, kidnapped children — all were targets for intrusion and exposure.
Overweening media power has also shaped British policy in important ways.
Contemplating the ruins of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s well-intentioned attempt to resolve Britain’s chronic schizophrenia about its place in the European Union, an attempt destroyed by the country’s Eurosceptic press, I once concluded that Murdoch was the second most powerful man in Britain. But if the ultimate measure of relative power is “who is more afraid of whom?” then you would have to say that Murdoch was — in this narrow sense — more powerful than the last three prime ministers of Britain. They have been more frightened of him than he of them.
Consider the evidence. Blair had seen his predecessor as prime minister, John Major, and a Labor leader, Neil Kinnock, destroyed by a hostile press. He learned his lesson. He wooed those press barons for all he was worth. Only as Blair was about to leave office, after 10 years, did he dare to denounce the British media for behaving “like a feral beast.”
This week we learned that Blair’s successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown, believes his family’s medical, bank and perhaps tax records were hacked into. Brown tells us he was reduced to tears after Rebekah Wade, who was then editor of the Sun, another Murdoch tabloid, rang him to say that the paper was going to reveal that his 4-year-old son, Fraser, had cystic fibrosis. Yet a few years later Brown still attended the wedding of said Rebekah, who at this writing is still, as Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s right-hand woman at News International, the British wing of News Corp. The Morgan le Fay of British journalism was just too powerful for a prime minister seeking reelection to slight.
Current Prime Minister David Cameron out-Blaired Blair in wooing the press barons in general and Murdoch in particular. Worse, he hired the former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, to be his communications director. Cameron ignored all the warnings he was given about the former editor.
Most shockingly, Scotland Yard officers shelved an investigation that they should have pursued vigorously. They failed to tell thousands of people, whose names appeared in the notes of a private investigator used by the News of the World, that their phones might have been hacked. Only tenacious investigative reporting in the Guardian and the New York Times forced a reopening of the police investigation.
Cameron has now promised a public inquiry, chaired by a senior judge. Yet even if there are still worse revelations to come about the past, the future looks brighter. The best of British journalism has exposed the worst. In Parliament, the worms have finally turned. Party leaders and ordinary MPs are, at long last, reasserting the supremacy of elected politicians over unelected media barons. The barrier of fear has been overcome.
Out of this putrid quagmire there should emerge a whole new settlement: in the balances between politics, the media, the police and the law; in the self-regulation of the press; and in the practice of journalism. The danger is that once the initial outrage has passed, Britain will again settle for half-measures, half-implemented. But for now, one of the most important crises of the British political system in 30 years has produced an opportunity. I will return this autumn to a Britain that is slightly more free.
Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University. His latest book is “Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name.”