Mittwoch, 27. Juli 2011

The "free media" and "free elections" – reflections on Murdoch and friends

25 July 2011. A World to Win News Service. A scandal has hounded the entire British political system, exposing much of the dirtiness and the depth of the corruption of a power structure often held up as a shining example of "the free world". The British ruling class's continuing efforts to thwart the widening of that scandal is a further exposure of the ugliness of that system.

After more than five years of suspicions and accusations, it is now certain that the phones of many hundreds and possibly even thousands of people (according to the police some 4,000 phone numbers were on the main hacker's list, but some reports say up to 12,000 may be involved) have been "hacked" (their conversations and messages listened into) in order to obtain and publish embarrassing or otherwise hurtful information about them. Most were celebrities – politicians, actors and models, sports stars and the British royal family. Some were ordinary people who had the misfortune to fall victim to violent crimes and then see the media feast on their misery.

The main organisation caught so far at this trafficking in human suffering is News of the World (NOTW), a British tabloid published on Sundays, the globe's biggest-selling English-language newspaper. NOTW is part of the News International group, along with the Sun (infamous for its combination of soft-core porn and "family values"), the respected Times of London aimed at the better-off crowd and British Sky Broadcasting (the UK's biggest pay TV channel). News International is in turn the British branch of the News Corporation, the second-largest media company in the US (after Disney), owner of Fox television and several influential American dailies, including the Wall Street Journal. The main owner and chairman of News Corp is Rupert Murdoch, sometimes called "the owner of the News" because of his power over media all over the world, especially in the US, UK, Australia and South-east Asia, and now bidding to expand his business in the Middle East.

So far, the UK scandal has brought down two of the country's most powerful police officials, chief UK police officer Sir Paul Stephenson, head of the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), and Assistant Met Police Commissioner John Yates. It has led to the resignation and arrest of Andy Coulson, the Conservative Party's former chief spin doctor and Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman, along with the resignation and arrest of Rebekah Brooks, News International chief executive, and the arrest and even imprisonment of at least ten of the newspaper's editors and reporters. It has also jeopardised Cameron's position and the future of his coalition government, and may produce more casualties if the ruling class is not able to put an end to it.

At the beginning, there was little sign that the arrest of NOTW editor Clive Goodman and the private detective Glenn Mulcaire for what the police declared was a minor and "isolated" incident would lead to such broad and deep disgrace for so many of the country's leaders and institutions.

Goodman and Mulcaire were listening in on the phone messages of British royal family advisers, looking for hot gossip fodder (unlike some countries, UK defamation law makes it risky for the media to just invent "news"). They were caught in November 2005 when they annoyed the royals by reporting Prince William's knee injury. In January 2007 Goodman was jailed for four months. Mulcaire, after pleading guilty to actually doing the hacking, was jailed for six months.

The affair continued to flare up and then damped down. Rival news organizations revealed that a list of the names of celebrities and other well-known figures whose phones Mulcaire had hacked were found in his home – 3,000 according to a 2009 article in the Guardian. Famous people, including former Labour Party Vice Prime Minister Lord John Prescott and the British-American film star Sienna Miller, complained and/or filed charges. Finally, the police confirmed a few of these cases. The Department of Public Prosecutions refused to widen the investigation, despite an internal report that there was a "vast array" of victims. The DPP head was later hired by Murdoch.

As recently reported by The New York Times, which along with the Guardian eventually brought the facts to light, for years "senior Scotland Yard officials assured Parliament, judges, lawyers, potential hacking victims, the news media and the public that there was no evidence of widespread hacking by the tabloid. They steadfastly maintained that their original inquiry, which led to the conviction of one reporter and one private investigator, had put an end to what they called an isolated incident."

Instead of investigating, the police sat on the evidence. When the investigator Mulcaire was arrested, his home yielded up 11,000 pages of notes listing 4,000 people whose phone lines he had presumably targeted, including top politicians and police officials. They were put in rubbish bags and left in a police locker, uncatalogued, unsorted and out of sight for four years.

The UK's top cop at the time was Sir Ian Blair. Blair was the man in charge when the police, mistaking the Brazilian plumber Jean Charles de Menezes for an Arab after the 2005 London bombings, chose to gun him down while he was seated in an Underground train. Instead of assigning the investigation to the special crimes division, Blair put the counter-terrorism unit in charge. The head of that unit was the now-resigned Yates. Yates proved his mettle as the officer in charge of Scotland Yard’s response to that incident, resulting in the vindication of the police. According to a source quoted by the NYT, it was felt that with Yates the affair was in "safe hands". In defending his decision to ignore the phone hacking evidence, Yates said, "I'm not going to go down and look at bin bags." Even after the 2009 Guardian report, he refused to reopen the investigation.

A parliamentary commission was formed to investigate the issue. After interviewing current and past NOTW editors and journalists, including Prime Minister Cameron's future press secretary Coulson, in February 2010 it published a report accusing the newspaper of "collective negligence" rather than criminal activity, because, the report said, there was no evidence that any of the newspaper's officials, including Coulson, had been aware of the hacking.

This was directly refuted by a former NOTW show-business reporter in September 2010, who told The New York Times that the practice of hacking was widespread at his newspaper and that Coulson actively encouraged his staff to intercept the calls of the targeted people. Coulson "totally and utterly" denied the charges, but the reporter continued to insist on his allegations and provided more details to the BBC and the Guardian until he was found dead in his flat on 18 July 2011, just as the scandal reached its feverish height. The police immediately announced that they were not treating his death as suspicious.

Meanwhile, faced with mounting pressure, the police had relaunched their enquiry in January 2011. All hell broke lose when it was revealed that NOTW had ordered the hacking of the voice mail of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl abducted and murdered in 2002. Not only had the newspaper's private investigator Mulcaire tapped her mobile phone seeking salacious details, he had even deleted messages (he said to make space for new messages, but possibly also to keep other media outlets from following NOTW's example). This misled the girl's parents into thinking that the missing girl was still alive and using her phone.

The resulting storm of outrage – disproving the idea that Murdoch was just giving the public what it wanted – finally led to the resignations and arrests and prompted the formation of two investigating committees in the House of Commons, which questioned the police officials, Rupert Murdoch and his son James, head of the UK division of his father's empire, and others.

The cover-up continues

Now that the issue of phone hacking is no longer merely a matter of the privacy of the royal family, people are increasingly disgusted by the media's practices and even more by the involvement of the government in enabling and then covering up Murdoch's activities. At the same time, there is something of a battle going on between rival political parties, as reflected, among other ways, in the political allegiance of the two newspapers that broke the scandal.

The London-based Guardian is associated with the Labour Party, and The New York Times, itself associated with the Democratic Party in the US, has been a working partner of the Guardian in recent years. They took a joint decision to launch a full-scale crusading investigation into this affair, although they say that each paper carried out its work independently of the other. To some extent this situation is creating opportunities for different political factions to increase their share or influence in government at the expense of their rivals. However this has gone far beyond what they expected, and they are now trying hard to wrap it up and limit the damages to their system.

The ruling class and its representatives, including the Conservative-led government, the Labour Party, Parliament and the media as a whole, including even Murdoch and his corporation, are trying to reduce the issue to whether or not the law was broken by the hacking, and whether or not Coulson and other NOTW editors knew about it or authorised it. The spectre of a media empire like Murdoch's flagrantly and repeatedly flouting the law is already sufficient to outrage many – but this is far from the whole of the matter.

The role of the police in protecting Murdoch's newspaper and helping its snooping can no longer be denied. It has come out that top police and court officials have worked for NOTW and NOTW filled their ranks, that they exchanged information, and that there were long-term and very close personal relations between the leaders of the two organizations. It is now being alleged that Murdoch's editors paid individual police for information – and Rebekah Brooks already admitted as much in previous testimony, at the time she headed NOTW, though she retracted this later. But the relationship seems to have been based more on mutual strategic advantage rather than bribes. Murdoch provided the police with experienced opinion-manipulators and political cover, which they certainly needed, among other reasons because of their unrelenting brutalization and occasionally killing of protesters and other people whose rights they supposedly protect.

The links between the Murdoch family and top government officials and leaders of the Labour and now the Conservative Party have also become plain for all to see. It has been especially startling for people to learn that the Prime Minister had hired Murdoch lieutenant Coulson as his press secretary even after it had been established that at least some hacking had been going on when Coulson was at NOTW. In fact, Coulson had been a mastermind of Cameron's public relations strategy before he became PM, and it has been suggested that Cameron hired him precisely to ensure the Murdoch empire's support for the Conservative Party in the elections.

But Murdoch mud has landed on the faces of politicians of the Conservative and Labour Party leaders alike, although not everyone has taken proper notice. For instance it has come out that NOTW spied on Labour leader Gordon Brown for a decade, both when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Tony Blair and when he became Prime Minister himself. Brown suspected it all along, he now says. Murdoch's Sun even made public, to the privacy-minded Brown family's great distress, that their infant son had just been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Yet Brown never said a word, and continued to maintain a close social relationship with Rebekah Brooks, who had been in charge of the Sun in 2006 when this incident occurred and who later became News Corp chief executive. He also continued to have close relations with the Murdoch family.

In fact, Brown and Cameron attended Brooks' 2009 wedding, and she attended the Prince of Wales' fiftieth birthday party. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair also socialized with the Murdochs and their executives. Despite the spying on their private lives, leading figures in the power structure seemed to find Murdoch's role in society legitimate and useful.

The media in general have a very important role in forming the public opinion that the masses can supposedly freely express at election time. All the mainstream media have the financial ability to reach millions of people. By using this power and their expertise at connecting with various strata of society, they can frame the questions and problems of the day in a way that often leads people to think that the solutions posed by the ruling class are the only ones possible. They also train people in a certain mentality – and Murdoch has excelled at encouraging an unhealthy, self-centred, hypocritical and cynically exploitative outlook. In this general way, and sometimes very specifically, the "free press" help dictate to the "free people" what to think and what to do.

But at the same time the media can play an important role in the rivalry between the political representatives of different factions of the ruling class. It is important for these factions to win the support of the tabloids and other media (in the UK the print press is under fewer restrictions than broadcast media) and the business groups that own them, which in turn, of course, are generally owned by top monopoly capitalists like Murdoch.

As has been pointed out, the law, in its majestic even-handedness, permits rich and poor alike to sleep on the streets, and it also gives news peddlers and financial magnates an equal right to own media empires.

In the decades since Murdoch moved in on the British media, no party has won a general election in the UK without his support. Murdoch's support for Tony Blair in 1997 was an important advantage to the Labour Party that year. All the parties and politicians surely wanted to keep or get that support. In fact, the influence of the tabloids is so strongly felt by the politicians that Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock blamed his 1992 defeat, despite the opinion polls in his favour, on the campaign against him that Murdoch's Sun started in the days just before the election.

Tony Blair and his allies in the Labour Party had already established such a close relationship with NOTW and Murdoch with their “New Labour” project that Blair was invited to take part in the News Corporation conference in Australia in 1995. Brown appeared at Murdoch's side at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2007. The story was repeated in 2008 when the Conservatives' Cameron met Murdoch in Greece to win his support. It seemed that they reached some kind of agreement, because a month later the Sun shifted its support to the Tories (Conservatives) once again.

It has been revealed that all recent British prime ministers repeatedly met with Murdoch or one of his chief executives at Downing Street (although through the back door), the Prime Minister's residence or somewhere else. "Cameron admitted meeting Murdoch executives 26 times in 15 months – but it emerges there were more occasions, many others," Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian.

If the leadership of both major political parties and Murdoch got along so well together, so much so that the politicians decided to put up with the occasional stab in the back, what does that say about the supposed "choice" that these parties offer the people in the elections that are considered the ultimate definition of "freedom"?

But the relationship between the ruling class political system and the media is not limited to Murdoch. This is where rivalry between different financial and political groups seems to have played a role in this scandal, although policy differences seemed to have been largely absent in this affair despite the public controversies during this period (over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and domestic cutbacks). Murdoch's News Corporation already owned 39 percent of B-Sky-B television, but he was planning to take complete control. This required government permission, and it would be hard to believe that Cameron and Murdoch and his executives did not discuss this during their meetings. Under questioning at an emergency House of Commons meeting Cameron was forced to admit it, though he insisted the conversations had been "appropriate".

This takeover, the most important move on News Corp's strategic agenda, would have brought Murdoch British media dominance, threatening even the position of BBC. There was opposition to this within ruling circles. Whether this played a role in encouraging the exposure and discrediting of Murdoch and his empire in the UK is not clear. But Murdoch has now withdrawn his bid.

In the end, probably for various different reasons, the British ruling class seems to have decided to try and cool down the issue in the hope of limiting further exposures. The appearance of Murdoch father and son and their top executives before the British Parliament's Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee might well be the final set piece. Contrary to the media description of Murdoch being grilled, in fact this was a tribune to allow Murdoch to deny any wrongdoing and justify his behaviour, portraying himself as a victim betrayed by a much-trusted employee, without being confronted with the more burning questions. There were no questions related to bribery, corruption and blackmail.

Like Murdoch, Cameron has refused to admit that he did anything wrong, which may very well be the case in the narrow legal terms within which both parties and the media are trying to confine the affair. He seems to have survived despite his deep involvement with Murdoch, but he does have the effective defence that all the political parties and many of the system's other pillars have been equally involved.

Opposition leader Ed Milliband might have gone a little bit further than others in his rhetoric, but he too has had to come to terms and led the parliament in taking a soft approach towards Murdoch and his gang, treating them as respected guests rather than criminals. It's worth mentioning that Murdoch supported Ed's brother David Milliband in their rivalry for Labour Party leadership, but Ed had his share of meetings with Murdoch's minions – and got caught failing to include them in his recently-released meeting log.

The House of Commons enquiry was not meant to get at the truth but on the contrary to cover up the crimes of the Murdoch empire and more importantly the complicity of a broad swath of the system's political institutions in pandering to and protecting a media empire that doesn't reflect public opinion but creates it, an empire whose goal is to delude and degrade the people, to dumb them and numb them, to spread the notion that because of elections and competing political parties, the rule of capital over the vast majority of people is somehow not a dictatorship.

This is the real picture that emerges from this scandal, and it gives the lie – or at least should – to the myth of a freely elected government and freely elected parliament, the free and fair media and the free market economy.

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