Why Rupert Murdoch’s Phone Hacking Scandal Could Transform British Politics

I was reminded recently of a wildlife documentary I once saw where the alpha male of a chimpanzee community was challenged for dominance by a younger ape. The older chimp was soundly beaten by the young pretender and as he limped off into the jungle to lick his wounds, the rest of the troop – including some of his offspring – descended on him, tearing him limb from limb. In the run-up to Rupert Murdoch’s appearance at the Parliamentary Committee in July it seemed as if he might face a similar fate. Wounded by the loss of his closest lieutenants – Hinton and Wade, the humiliating collapse of his BskyB bid, the falling price of News Corps shares, and a wave of public outrage it seemed that both Murdoch’s enemies and former friends might turn on him. Broadsheet newspapers backed by the ‘feral beasts’ of the tabloids were closing in and politicians who had always trembled and fawned at his feet, looked as if they might join the kill. But his ‘humble old man’ performance before a largely lackluster panel of MP’s combined with the start of parliamentary recess, and a growing sense of Hackgate-fatigue among the public, has meant that Murdoch will limp on – for the moment at least.

In the not-too-distant future Murdoch will no doubt be replaced, although not by his son. Public relations companies will be paid huge sums to shore up News Corp’s image and the company’s share price will stabilize. More apologies will be made as new aspects of the scandal are unearthed by journalists, detectives and inquiry panels on both sides of the Atlantic. But as dust begins to settle, what is being revealed is political landscape transformed. Many of our most basic assumptions and certainties have shifted as it becomes apparent that the phone-hacking scandal and its implications are not restricted to one media company, police force, parliament or even country. Instead the tentacles of this scandal reach deep into the very heart of how global corporate power works.

Last weekend under the headline “I’m starting to think the left may actually have been right,” a respected political commentator argued that the phone-hacking scandal and global economic crisis has resulted from the unfettered free market and has debased our democracies. “Democratic politics, which purports to enrich the many, is actually in the pocket of those bankers, media barons and other moguls who run and own everything,” he wrote. The commentator in question was not Noam Chomsky writing in the New Left Review but Charles Moore writing in the Daily Telegraph. This shows just how far our world has been turned upside down.

In his final television interview in 1994 dramatist and screen-writer Dennis Potter admitted that he had a name for the terminal pancreatic cancer spreading through his body: “I call it Rupert” he said.  Like a cancer Potter believed that Murdoch’s influence was infecting British political life and like a cancer its advance seemed both inexorable and without a cure. In the years since this interview, the contagion of corporate globalization continued its spread as media monopolies expanded and power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of wealthy elites. British politics were debased as political parties fought for the approval of media moguls, and parliament was filled to its ancient rafters with lily-livered career politicians, desperate to stay ‘on message.’ And then along came Hackgate.

Things will not change overnight, but the scales have fallen from people’s eyes and the shift in attitudes has been perceptible. The powerful may hope that the wave of public anger will fade quickly into cynicism. What they fear is that it could usher in a new period of transparency, scrutiny and reinvigorated political discourse. Overcoming the low regard with which many of our political representatives are held will require them step up to the plate. The current batch of MPs will not suddenly transform themselves into a battalion of conviction politicians, but the MPs who lead the battle against Murdoch – Chris Bryant and Tom Watson – have shown that the public respond to politicians who make a stand. Our politicians may be the ones who have allowed us to get into this mess but they are also the ones required to get us out. As the leader of the opposition Labor Party Ed Miliband put it: “For all that the reputation of politics has been damaged of late, who else can stand up to powerful interests?”

Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and broadcaster based in Britain.