Henry Porter | guardian.co.uk
Assuming the role of the loyal manservant after Rupert Murdoch’s first day of evidence at the Leveson inquiry, the Times suggested in its leader that we were at last seeing its master humanised. Instead of the familiar caricature, “Murdoch emerged as someone with a broad experience, a ready wit, a commitment to newspapers and readers and a becoming humility”. Only in that word “becoming” was there anything resembling a Jeeves-like demurral on the matter of Murdoch’s personality.
By the end of the second day’s testimony, the paper looked silly. Murdoch had revealed himself as one of those toxic elderly relatives who leverage as much from the weakness of others as from their own ability, spreading self-doubt and calamity along the way. We watched for the facts about his access to Number 10, business practices and response to the phone-hacking scandal, but the really compelling part was the character revealed in those 10 hours. To that degree, he was humanised ? or at least made flesh ? and, in the process, his grip on British political life was relaxed that much more.
Murdoch’s defenders always said that his power was never as great as his enemies maintain and now insist the issue is only of historic interest, because newspapers are in decline. They add, as if obituarising, that he risked much to increase plurality in the British media and was one of the boldest and most visionary entrepreneurs to emerge since the Second World War. To concede these things does not invalidate the truth of the News International scandal, which is that the body count of those who had direct or indirect contact with Murdoch, whether by chance or choice, is extremely high. Prime ministers, MPs, newspaper editors, business executives, members of the public, special advisers, ordinary journalists, celebrities, senior policemen, lawyers and even family members are littered in his trail.
While more than 30 individuals wait to hear if they will face criminal charges, reputations are in shreds and political careers on life support, Murdoch, like a Marvel Comics villain, puts on the don’s Borsalino at the end of last week’s show, flashes the re-enamelled fangs and is swept from the Royal Courts of Justice looking triumphant. Of course he has been irreparably damaged by the scandal, as he pointed out several times (like all true villains, Murdoch aspires to victimhood). It’s just that he seems to be suffering a good deal less than anyone else who became entangled with his enterprises.
Even after his tactical penitence in court, he couldn’t help himself from settling scores with, among others, Gordon Brown, Harold Evans, Colin Myler, Tom Crone, David Yelland and Paul Dacre. The most revealing barb was aimed at Andrew Neil, because it showed Murdoch’s self-pity as well as his vindictiveness ? “Mr Neil seems to have found it very profitable to get up and spread lies about me, but that’s his business.”
To watch him was both fascinating and debilitating. Never before had I quite understood friends in New York who dread dinners with Murdoch, because he is liable to tell you at length about his company’s new iPad app or give you a tour d’horizon of new and old media. Like many autocrats, he’s a bit of a crasher, astonishingly incurious and profoundly lowering. But the part where my ears pricked up during his evidence was when he started talking about democracy, because while democracy and free speech nearly always form his alibi, it is in these areas that he has done most damage.
His frequent claim on the word democracy was striking. While speaking about privacy, he said: “If we’re a transparent society, a transparent democracy, let’s have it out there” and: “A privacy law is always proposed for the protection of the great and the good… not for the people who make up our democracy.”
He also told the inquiry that “meeting politicians is part of the democratic process”; “local newspapers have a great history of contribution to our democracy”; and “a varied press guarantees democracy and we want democracy rather than autocracy”.
The use of the first person plural, the “we” and “our” of these utterances is highly objectionable, because Murdoch is obviously not one of us. He is an American citizen who does not pay taxes in Britain and does not vote here. It is no more his democracy to preach to us about than it is Vladimir Putin’s.
But the larger hypocrisy is that while he argues that he increased media plurality, he has been a steady drain on British democracy, debauching it with his cynicism and corrupting the process with threats and inducements, murmured in back channels. The idea that he did not ask favours from those seeking election is simply risible. They needed him and he needed them ? why else would Cameron go to Santorini or Blair go to Hayman Island?
But, hey, this particular nightmare is over. A reporter and editor did their jobs brilliantly, the long-awaited House of Commons select committee report will be published this week and cannot surely fail to doubt his and son James’s word, and Leveson trundles on, eliciting truth with great subtlety.
We can take heart that Murdoch is already finished as a political force here, that the record of his morbid influence is being settled and serious crimes will be prosecuted. What we have to focus on now is protecting our democracy from the influence of such a character again.
And that means directing an unflinching gaze at our own complacency as well as the evidence of current influence on, for instance, the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond. Did Salmond lobby for the BSkyB merger, and was it in exchange for favourable coverage in the Scottish Sun?
Jeremy Hunt is in grave trouble because of similar dealings and he should resign immediately, while Cameron may yet find himself in a greater fix, having allowed himself in a few brief weeks around Christmas 2010 to be surrounded by people lobbying for the merger between News International and BSkyB, talking to James about the deal at dinner with Rebekah Brooks, riding one of the horses loaned to her by the police and employing in a senior position at Number 10 Andy Coulson, Brooks’s former deputy at the News of the World.
It’s humiliating to realise how easy it was for Murdoch to ensnare the British prime minister and Scotland’s first minister and, before that, how his company’s agenda formed the core of at least three of Cameron’s announcements on the scrapping of Ofcom, a review of the BBC licence fee and the relaxation of impartiality rules in broadcasting. It is as if Cameron had taken dictation.
My belief is that he is in serious trouble and that this scandal has a long way to go and might yet bring him down.
We can no longer trust politicians to adjudicate on bids and mergers involving the media because they have too much to gain and lose. If journalists are to be more closely regulated, politicians must also be distanced from these decisions and changes in media ownership made more transparent and open to challenge and meaningful consultation.
The point of regulations and institutions is to defend the relatively fragile democratic process from people like Murdoch. The fact that none of the safeguards worked and we came within a whisker of allowing his near total dominance of the marketplace further erodes our faith in the political class to act in the interests of the public. Let’s not forget that it was largely accident, and the dedication of a very few journalists, that exposed the cover-up, of which Murdoch now claims, with eye-watering hypocrisy, that he was a victim.
Rupert Murdoch didn’t do all this by himself. Over the years, he accrued a large number of supporters outside politics and his own newspapers; people who were happy to attend his parties and write sycophantic pieces about the benefits he brought to our society ? whether because they were in awe of his withering cynicism or simply supported his obsessions with neoliberal economics and going to war in Iraq. These hangers-on were corrupted by Murdoch and enabled his dark side as much as any politician did over the last 30 years.
We are rid of this destructive character, and that is worth celebrating, for nothing so becomes him as this slow-motion downfall. But let’s not forget that he took advantage of our weaknesses and of our failure to apprehend his true nature.Saturday 28 April 2012