Bronwen Maddox introduces the latest issue of Prospectby / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
When Rupert Murdoch, asked to name his priority, answered “This one,” and put his arm protectively around Rebekah Brooks, he took defiance to the point of delusion. He and News Corporation executives took too long to understand the revulsion at the allegations of criminal phone hacking, the choice of targets, and the delayed revelations. They were slow to realise that parliament had declared war.
It is possible (see Richard Northedge’s article) that Murdoch will now jettison his other British titles and even his BSkyB stake. His priority (Brooks aside) was the bid for the rest of BSkyB. In withdrawing, he recognised that it would fail. Would his exit from Britain matter? National life has been corrupted by the mutual courtship of politicians and moguls, trading honours and commercial favours for editorial support. John Major was the only recent prime minister to refuse; as he has said drily, he paid a price. But media influence has waned in an age of internet and floating readers. Peter Kellner shows that the press has far less impact than MPs say. Their claim that only now are they free to speak out is absurd.
Yet Murdoch’s departure, I think, would be at least partly a loss. Many disagree, of course; Peter Jay in the extreme. Yet BSkyB owes much success to Murdoch, nor would his loss-making newspapers otherwise probably have thrived—or survived. One former Labour cabinet minister argued to me that if Murdoch had not bought The Times and Sunday Times “Someone else would have done.” But they were never financially attractive: not then, and not now. The Times, where I worked for years, and for which I often write, spends millions a year on foreign coverage: admirable, but commercially hard to defend. Yet if the titles closed, or more likely shrank, as they were passed around the circuit of the world’s vanity publishers, it would be a blow to the diversity and proper aggression of Britain’s media.
That is now under threat as all titles struggle with the shift of readers and advertisers to the web. We should not forget that the scale of the phone hacking was exposed by the Guardian, itself losing millions. The MPs’ expenses scandal was revealed by the Telegraph after it bought stolen information, for which it rightly was able to use a public interest defence.
MPs’ condemnation of crime is justified; the sanctimony—and in Gordon Brown’s case, hypocrisy—is not. Nor is their lack of comparable outrage about police corruption, or their impulses towards tighter press curbs. Christopher Graham, information commissioner, describes a vast trade in personal data—as did his predecessor in 2006. Yet parliament has not toughened penalties. Nor has it looked hard at media ownership in the digital age. It should start there.