Category Archives: Home Affairs Select Committee
Scandals are landmarks on our political landscape. We are used to the way that the press and the media can build a furious row on a range of matters for a day or two, and then it subsides.
This scandal – which hasn’t yet even got a convincing name – is different.
It is different because it is the press itself which is now finally and inescapably at the centre of our vision. It is different because the scale of public outrage, and way in which the prime minister is so closely bound into the heart of the problem means that he has had to take far stronger action than anyone else could or would have dared, and he has had to set up a full Public Inquiry.
We can have no idea at this moment just what this Inquiry will find, what it will tell us about our society, but the expectation is that it is going to be a deeply uncomfortable process for many people. The hope is that it will show us clearly what it is that went so badly wrong in the relationship between the press, the politicians, and the people, and what steps need to be taken to put this right.
The name most commonly used for the scandal is “hackgate”. I am not sure that this is right. It captures the moment when the floodgates burst, when the universal horror over the most extreme action of a single private investigator hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone, in order to access sensational material to sell newspapers, brought home to the country as a whole that something toxic was happening to the press.
The danger of this name is that it offers comfort to far too many people. The quality press and the BBC would not dream of “hacking” though they have never been shy of parasitically reporting the stories. The other tabloids if they were doing it at all would have drawn the line somewhere. This is about unspeakable crimes, crimes that could only be committed by “other people”.
It is good that Lord Leverson sees a wider picture. He will look beyond the criminal failures in News international and the police to the wider issues of corporate governance and a media culture that allowed this extreme amoral example of bad press practice to exist. He is approaching this from the point of “who guards the guardians”.
What will we see when we do begin to look wider?
If we are looking for monsters my guess is that we will not find them.
In the tsunami of stories that have swept over us in the last 10 days there are images that float to the surface.
I see the image of Rupert Murdoch with his arm around Rebekah Brooks, offering her protection against the clamour from the mob. Is this an image of a company where things that we normally see as good, family and friendship, was allowed to matter too much, at the expense of the public and of the people who work within their organisation.
I hear the protestations of Rebekah Brooks, that she did not know, and I find this believable. I find it completely believable that there are many things that people would have chosen not to tell her, because these are things she would not have wished to hear.
I hear the accounts of journalists of the pressures they experienced within the company, the relentless pressure to deliver the right story, and I see that this pressure, something that exists well beyond the confines of the News of the World, could drive many individuals to deliver stories got by many dubious means, stories that may have a tenuous connection with the truth and stories that may be in the interests of the proprietor, but not in the broader public interest.
I see images of Rupert Murdoch, this energetic bright old man, now out from behind the curtain and exposed, and I think of the ways in which we have all, all of us allowed him to fill us with fear over the last 30 years. If there is a monster it is a monster we have built in our imaginations.
I am sure that when he does speak, he will convince us that there are things he did not know. He will not have been told, but people will have striven to deliver stories that they believed he will have wanted to see.
I saw the image of David Cameron, staying away from the House of Commons to announce another variation of the Big Society. Here the TV images played surreal tricks. The signal was corrupted. His smooth concerned face continually distorted and peeled away.
When I listen to David Cameron on the big society I hear many things that resonate. He is right that there is a limit to what the state can do, and that there is a need for us to take far greater control over our world. I see that he means this. What he does not and perhaps cannot see, what he is still hiding from himself is that this “big society” cannot have a firm foundation on the tangled mass of vested big money interests that is symbolised by his oh so close links with the Murdoch Family.
I hear David Cameron’s statements about the things he did not know, and again I find these completely believable. I think we have often seen with him the capacity to not look too closely, to block out inconvenient truths, to believe that all is well within his simple and sunny vision of the world, and we are back to the problem that people will have told him only those things that he wanted to hear.
There are people who we now know have told him strongly that there were real issues with the hiring of Andy Coulson, but for the most part he will have seen them as his political enemies, and the relationship between the parties has been so toxic, in part because of the press, that he will have chosen not to believe what he was told.
We have seen Andy Coulson, again at the centre of the story, battling his way through the crowd of cameras. As always when I see this man I do not see a monster, but a servant seeking to do the bidding of those who employed him; an intermediary between the unspoken desires of his masters and the hidden means of delivering them.
I do not see, because they are not yet visible, the other interests that lie behind all of this; those people and big business interests that supported Murdoch’s view of the world, and wanted his influence over the voting public to continue. Is Murdoch the puppet master himself a useful puppet, a servant of other masters.
I see the big set piece debates and PMQs, where we are seeing a combination of a desire to move on, clear up the intolerable mess, build a better future, with the raw and painful explosion of anger and the moment of freedom to speak out and expose some of what has been so badly wrong.
I see the committees becoming compulsive viewing. I welcome to the desire to understand what it was that happened, why problems went unchecked, and I worry about our need to put a face on what has happened and create scapegoats for all of this.
Beyond all of this we are beginning to see the jostling for position. The desire to own and claim credit for the better future.
As the tsunami recedes and we see the wreckage left behind the task is to imagine what this future looks like. We will get this right if we see the future in terms of the interests of the many, not of the few.