‘Rupert Murdoch’s looming hunger for power is a threat to democracy’ (porter). Chilling insight or conspiracy theory?’
It will forever be seen as the moment when the sun set on the Murdoch empire and when democracy in Britain, at the eleventh hour, avoided committing suicide and stood proudly again. The sight of the House of Commons unanimously rejecting Rupert Murdoch and News International, in whose thrall they had been since the days of Thatcher (Campbell, 2008, p.410) was both commendable and contemptible.
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That it took so long and journalism which plumbed new depths of depravity for it to resurface is a stain on the British democratic body but, whatever is said, allowing News International to ultimately take over BskyB would have put Murdoch in an unassailable position in the UK and for that Parliament is to be commended. His demise has been swift and it was democracy which acted to sever his arteries of power and deny him a prize which many thought should have been denied him by a more robust application of European competition laws (Feintuck & Varney, 2006, p.95). Indeed the coalition government was, outrageously, ready to waive through the bid without referral to the competition commission and the bid would have followed the example of the Times and the Sunday Times which were acquired by Murdoch in 1981 without being similarly referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission as it was then known (Greenslade, 2003, p.377). The bid has now been dropped altogether. As a FT editorial observed the threat to media plurality was, and remains, real and ultimately it was the people who rejected the idea:
“Merging the two [broadcast and print] would create a behemoth with the potential to dominate the media scene, locking out challengers and stifling the diversity of debate.” (FT Editorial March 3rd 2011)
Aristotle once observed: “In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.” (Aristotle, 1996, p.154). The House of Commons reaction to the phone hacking scandal was perceived to be democracy at its finest, a reaffirmation of the will of the majority which had become, as Porter (2010) would argue, under threat from a media baron who has had the police, government and parliament at his mercy in Britain ever since he first came to the UK (Curran & Seaton: 1997, p.366). Subsequent events to Porter’s observation, made before the phone hacking scandal reached its nadir when the phone of tragic murder victim Milly Dowler was hacked to delete voicemail messages which gave false hope to a grieving family and brought the fury of a nation, and crucially of a resurrected Parliament, to bear on News International, would at first glance seem to validate his claims, in 2010 (Porter, 2010), that Murdoch’s empire is a threat to British democracy. Democracy in the UK has not been rediscovered overnight and it is arguable that this episode is but a sign of a deeper malaise. Porter’s analysis was clearly a chilling insight but his article is built upon foundations which are shaky and which verge on the conspiratorial. The separation of powers doctrine, first proposed by Montesqieu (Richter, 1977, p.91), enables democracy and to the executive, legislature and judiciary we can add the fourth estate, as Thomas Carlyle observed, the press, which acts as a watchdog upon the others (Robertson & Nicol, 2003, p.3). This essay will, structured along the lines of the separation of powers, argue that Poter’s assertions that Murdoch’s empire “makes and breaks governments” is misjudged and that the current reaction to the phone hacking scandal demonstrates that he is, in fact, ultimately accountable to Parliament: the threat to democracy has diminished but only temporarily. In part 1 then this essay will look at the “fourth estate” and its relationship with democracy before chapter 2 reflects on the executive, legislature and judiciary branches and the threat of Murdoch. As an editorial in the Guardian observed, there has been a lot of soul searching in the last few months and the scandal at the News of the World has rocked every democratic institution weaned on Murdoch’s power:
“No well-functioning democracy should allow one man to frame its window on the world. But then the institutions of British democracy have hardly been functioning well of late in relation to Mr Murdoch. The fourth estate of the free press, in which we are of course one interested party, is one of those institutions. It should check and balance political power from the outside, while itself being held in check by the ordinary processes of the criminal law.” (Guardian editorial, June 2011)
Part 1: The fourth estate and Rupert Murdoch
The notion of the “fourth estate” has been around for about 200 years and rests upon the idea that a government unchecked by a vigilant media is liable to exceed its bounds (Curran & Seaton, 1997, p.49). This role, taken on by the media, in effect legitimises democracy, at least in classical liberal theory, with the press able to enlighten the electorate to make an informed decision during an election, protect and promote human rights and social tolerance and, of most importance, to ensure that governments are brought to account and abuses of power made transparent (Pilger, 2004, p.xv). In reality however this romanticised notion of a newspaper is a myth which the News of the World shattered conclusively with the original defence of the wrongdoing being attributable to a “rogue reporter” exposed as the last refuge of a newspaper which had grown accustomed to paying private detectives to obtain private medical records and bribing police. Thus the press can just as readily play a less noble role as the following observation by Sheila Coronel demonstrates:
“The media, however, can play antidemocratic roles as well. They can sow fear, division and violence. Instead of promoting democracy, they can contribute to democratic decay.” (Coronel, 2003, p.3)
There has been a need for self-regulation to right the imbalance caused by unnecessarily intrusive reporting. The liberal theory of press freedom appeals to a self-righting process first advocated by John Milton in the Aeropagitica who argued for freedom of expression in a marketplace of ideas where bad ideas would wither and good ideas would ultimately prosper (Siebert, 1956, p.44). Evolving away from an authoritarian past where the Crown controlled the press England moved towards libertarianism in the 18th century (ibid) and ultimately in 1953 established a body which was ran by the industry to regulate the press (Royal Commission on the Press, 1974, p.1). It was Sir David Calcutt’s Royal Commission into the press that ultimately rejected the predecessor, the Press Council, by proposing the Press Complaint Commission’s formation (Mcnair, 1997, p.186, Curran & Seaton, 1997, p.368, Allen, 1999, p.181). One of the effects of the phone hacking scandal involving the News of the World has been a call to abolish the Press Complaints Commission and introduce privacy laws: a move which will could endanger freedom of expression and logically democracy itself (Meyer, 2006) although the PCC is not without weakness it is the least worst option (Coad, 2009). More directly Murdoch’s newspapers have been reflections of the proprietor’s political instincts in being Conservative, supportive of the private sector, anti-immigration and ‘fun’: bastions of sleaze, sensationalism and corruption which have driven standards ever downward and even debased the once-mighty Times, the traditional newspaper of record, which Max Hastings decries as a travesty (Hastings, 2002, foreword xvi). Celebrity gossip and sensational stories are the staple diet of Murdoch tabloids and, with the proprietor treating his newspapers like, as Hastings memorably puts it, “private rifle ranges” (Hastings, 2002, foreword xvi) to endorse his political viewpoint, coupled with the kind of persistent editorial interference which prompted Harold Evans to resign as editor of the Times in 1982 (ibid, xvi), it is no stretch to say that the watchdog role of the press is lost on his newspapers who have too often supped with the devils at Westminster and used stories as political weapons rather than beacons of the truth (Greenslade, 2002, p.212). His huge share of the newspaper and broadcasting market also undermines media plurality and he was edging ever closer to a monopoly which would have included 100% of BskyB until the hacking scandal forced him to back down. As things stand his share of just below 40% of the UK newspaper market (Guardian editorial, June 30th 2011) is not befitting of a modern democracy and his thirst for power is clearly a threat as more diversity leads to enlightened debate. For how can a public fed on stories of celebrity gossip, biased political stories and dubiously obtained information which is itself criminal and sometimes xenophobic ever make the informed decisions which nurture a democracyWith the fall of the News of the World and the neutering of the once-mighty oracle The Times Murdoch has succeeded in sabotaging the fourth estate from within.
Part 2: Executive, legislature and judiciary
Murdoch’s empire has reached into the very heart of Westminster and for successive governments he was the key to victory, encapsulated by the pithy headline following Major’s victory over Neil Kinnock: “It was the Sun wot won it” (Young, 1997). Much is made of Margaret Thatcher allowing Rupert Murdoch to purchase the Times and the Sunday Times without referral to the MMC by bending the rules in his favour (Campbell, 2008, p.409), Tony Blair’s trip to Australia to play court to him in exchange for what was perceived to be decisive support in the 1997 election (Young, 1997) and now David Cameron’s hiring of the former NoW editor Andy Coulsen as press officer has again raised the spectre of Rupert Murdoch being too close to the ruling party (Jenkins, 2011). Details are now slipping out of endless meetings between the chancellor and Murdoch prior to the BskyB bid, extravagant cocktail parties for the great and the good and bizarre stories of backdoor visits and cups of tea (ibid). The colour of the political chameleon is, as David Cameron pointed out in the Commons recently, irrelevant as “the clock stopped on his watch” and indeed all parties have been in bed with, or frightened of, Murdoch which is an affront to democracy and a poisoning of the well of debate (ibid). Poter misjudges the power of Rupert Murdoch, however, by saying that he “makes and breaks governments” (Poter, 2010). Although many in the House of Commons were afraid of him it cannot be said that the support of the Murdoch newspapers decides elections and at best his support would garner a few extra votes. Stephen Glover, writing in the Independent, observes in relation to the 2010 election that Cameron’s advisors greatly exaggerated the power of the Murdoch press (Glover, 25th July 2011)
Proprietors are often given to exaggerating the impact of their newspapers: Max Hastings recalls Conrad Black having similar notions but ultimately the ability of newspapers and the media to shape the political world is limited (Hastings, 2002, p.303). Poter’s misjudgement was the establishment’s misjudgement, however, and for that reason his observations gain strength. He also asserts that Parliament has been unable to stand up to him. This observation was true at least until the phone hacking scandal inquiry and the miraculous sight of MPs and government ministers abandoning the Murdoch empire (House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2011). Although it is tempting to say that democracy has returned, this is perhaps just a glimpse of what should be and the stories of police officers being bribed on an industrial scale is reprehensible. A wider malaise is at work here and one which, but for the News of the World overstepping the mark, would have been well on the way to democratic suicide. As the Guardian points out the path to 2011 has been a tortuous one:
“After years of denials, supine Press Complaints Commission oversight and an odd reticence on the part of the police, the truth has very slowly asserted its power in the phone-hacking scandal.” (Guardian editorial, 30th June 2011)
Of the institutions of democracy it is only the judiciary who appear to have emerged unscathed. The systemic bribing of police undermines this claim to some extent however and the battles between Parliament and the Supreme Court over prisoner’s voting rights demonstrate the tensions. What is clear is that the prophecy that every democracy commits suicide eventually appears to be coming to fruition and although Poter’s article is a chilling insight it is an insight into a problem with far greater roots than Rupert Murdoch’s admittedly consuming lust for power. News International has now been permanently handicapped by a temporary reassertion of parliamentary democracy in action but the threat to democracy in putting forth a right-wing agenda which destabilises debate, covering news stories which trivialise and sensationalise news, compromising editorial independence, obtaining information by criminal means and by being perceived to be able to influence the outcome of elections is very real. The watchdog role of the press as the fourth estate, already diminished by the demise of the Times and investigative journalism, would cease to exist if Murdoch’s power went unchecked and this would be the greatest threat to democracy of all, a threat which has not disappeared following the phone hacking scandal.
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