Peter Oborne is not someone whose every word I either hang onto or agree with; but every now and again the recently resigned Chief Political Commentator of the Daily Telegraph, associate-editor of The Spectator, and occasional TV presenter makes a convincing case. A full year before the phone-hacking scandal broke, he hosted an edition of Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’ and delved into the murky, incestuous relations between the Murdoch media, the Metropolitan Police Force and politicians. I found it one of the most eye-opening and unsettling documentaries I’ve ever seen; and whatever else Oborne does or says that doesn’t chime with my own beliefs, I’ll always go easy on him because of that ‘Dispatches’.
Call it wilful ignorance or casual ambivalence, but I’d been largely unaware of just how much power was concentrated in the hands of a small and elite few prior to Oborne playing his ‘Woodstein’ card; and the revelation of how the likes of Murdoch’s anointed ginger heir was pulling so many strings at so many high levels seemed both worryingly wrong and unnervingly undemocratic. It was hardly revelatory to discover there were a few bent coppers on the News International payroll, but the scale of the collusion between Wapping, Westminster and Scotland Yard was truly shocking. Murdoch came across as Ming the Merciless-meets-William Randolph Hearst, and the influence successive governments had allowed him to exercise was directly responsible for the unprecedented free rein his organisation had to snoop on, spy on, ruin and wreck anybody who dared to cross him or his lackeys. He unleashed his hit-men and released his hounds – and government gave him the green light to do so.
When much of what had gone on under the radar of the public eye surfaced a year later, the scandal provided many moments of glorious hypocrisy, such as Ed Miliband nominating himself as the head of a moral crusade against Murdoch when the previous summer he’d been amongst all the other fawning and kowtowing dishonourable members paying homage to the Digger at his annual News International bash. The old saying ‘They all piss in the same pot’ never seemed more appropriate at an occasion when party allegiances were put to one side in a manner usually only seen during the ceremony accompanying the state opening of Parliament. How can anyone take the theatrical faux-enmities emanating from both sides of the Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions remotely seriously when supposed enemies are seen sharing a chummy chat and comparing the brownness of their respective noses at the home of a bullying baron who has spent forty years penetrating the British psyche with his vulgar, coarse, crude, lewd, abrasive and ignorant worldview?
Murdoch offered up a sacrificial lamb in the shape of the News of the World to appease the outraged masses, and now all has reverted back to where we were before, as though none of it ever happened. A few guilty parties had a brief holiday at the pleasure of Her Majesty and a few others walked away from court, while dinner invitations to Murdoch Towers are still being accepted by high-ranking members of the Cabinet; and the Great British public demonstrated their capacity for collective amnesia by continuing to purchase Murdoch papers (once more accepting the word of his publications as Gospel) and continuing to subscribe to his TV channels. It’s remarkable how little has changed when it really did seem that we were experiencing our very own Watergate in 2011. How did the Murdoch Empire and its affiliated institutions manage this astonishing PR recovery? Oh, yes – a dead DJ was exposed as the nation’s greatest sexual offender, of course.
I’m not a great conspiracy theorist. I don’t believe anyone other than Oswald assassinated JFK and I can’t believe NASA faking a moon landing at the height of the Cold War wouldn’t have caused at least one of the hundreds engaged on the project or someone at the Kremlin to stoke uncertainty in 1969. Such stories satisfy a desire to prove we’re being lied to by the powers-that-be, but they lack focus or (crucially) hard evidence and are open to endless wild interpretations, thus preventing them from ever gaining any credence outside of a few isolated circles of online fanatics; it’s tempting to regard them as smokescreens, as with the equally felicitous fantasy of Historic Paedo Rings run by the rich and powerful of politics and showbiz. It vindicates a good deal of the animosity many members of the public feel towards the rich and powerful, to believe ‘they were all at it’, something that a string of convenient arrests and sentencing of doddery old men has helped confirm.
Murdoch himself was barred from joining the establishment club when he arrived in England as a brash, uncultured colonial cousin; he responded to his rejection by serialising Christine Keeler’s kiss-and-tell memoirs in the News of the World, raking-up an embarrassing episode that was guaranteed to get the establishment’s goat; his intense, long-standing dislike of elites and the old boy network has survived intact into the present day and is now manifested as a vigorous pursuit of the Victim agenda, thus reinforcing the myth that ‘they were all at it’. And just as journalists and non-journalists alike were terrified of taking on Darth Murdoch and his stormtroopers pre-hacking revelations, nobody now dare question the consensus over this particular issue. In the case of Fleet Street, where jobs in a dying industry are becoming increasingly perilous, it’s no wonder so few are prepared to rock the boat. In the case of the general public, we’re back to ‘It was in the paper, so it must be true’.
Conspiracy theories are a handy distraction, no doubt planted by those eager to deflect attention from their own shady activities, safe in the knowledge there is a ready and willing audience to lap them up and run with them. A similar purpose is served by the unceasing manufacture of rubbish celebrities that inhabit the headlines, those we are told count for something when they actually count for nothing at all. But a distraction from what? If there is a secret elite running this country, they’re not lizards and they’re not Paedos. They’re the same people who were running it before the momentary repulsion provoked by the phone-hacking scandal – a tiny interconnected cabal controlling the media, big business, politics and the police, presenting their agenda as fact and silencing anyone who challenges it. This includes sacrificing the impartiality of the press; as billionaire owners follow the Murdoch path by purchasing a paper and then imposing their commercial interests upon it, more and more newspapers begin to resemble corporate brochures, with ads masquerading as news stories.
Murdoch’s muckrakers certainly did enough damage to the reputation of journalists, but those that entered the profession with ambitious ideals have had to compromise these ideals and lie low for fear of losing their positions, and those that have signed-up to the intern course that passes for journalism these days display the kind of writing talents unseen in print since the heyday of ‘Look-in’. The Telegraph’s cosy endorsement of HSBC and reluctance to cover any misdemeanours concerning that company, one element that provoked Peter Oborne’s resignation from the paper, is not unique, alas; all are guilty to some degree or another. Even if they refrain from unsubtle product placement in their pages, many papers will host ‘corporate weekends’ usually sponsored by a company or, in some cases, a country (especially one with a dubious human rights record) that has a vested interest in positive publicity on the paper’s part. Sometimes it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that most newspapers today are mere mouthpieces for big business and any lingering principles are for sale to the highest bidder – just like everything else in a country where profit has superseded principle in all areas of public life.
But, hey, don’t take my word for it – here it is from the horse’s mouth…