A review of Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman.
On 24 July eight senior figures connected to News International were arrested and told that they would be charged with criminal offences related to the hacking of phones affecting some 600 people over a six-year period.
The alleged perpetrators include Rebekah Brooks and former political adviser to David Cameron, Andy Coulson. If there is any justice they will spend a couple of years studying the inside of a jail cell. And yet they so very nearly got away with it.
When it first became public knowledge that journalists on the News of the World were illegally hacking into phones (and not just any old phones but royal mobiles) the response of News International executives was to insist that they had a rogue reporter. They held to this defence doggedly for four years and used all their manifold powers to prevent or obstruct all attempts to investigate further.
Dial M for Murdoch (by Labour MP Tom Watson and Independent journalist Martin Hickman) tells in great detail the story of how this defence was sustained in the face of mounting evidence of wrong-doing at the highest level of the organisation. It is a story of two halves.
Between 2007 and 2011 the Murdoch empire repeatedly fought off all efforts to lift the lid on their criminality and the web of corruption and power that sustained it. The authors, key protagonists in the battle to hold NI to account, came close to giving up in despair as government, police and the leaders of both major parties showed zero appetite for confrontation with the owners of Britain’s biggest-selling papers. Worse than that the party in government openly supported Murdoch and was complicit in his company’s wrongdoing.
In retrospect it is hard to understand why the company’s senior executives thought they could get away with their strategy of denial and cover-up in the face of such fast-growing evidence. Retrospect, however, demands that we forget just how powerful NI had become in British politics and society and for just how long they held this position. What Watson and Hickman’s book does very well is highlight how elaborate was the network of power, fear and influence which linked News Corp to political leaders, senior police and well-placed journalists. To take on the Murdoch empire prior to the phone-hacking scandal was to guarantee defeat. Defeat most likely preceded by a ritual public humiliation which would end your career. To support it on the other hand, promised flattery and promotion in the most widely read press and, in many cases, financial riches.
The second half of Watson and Hickman’s book starts on 4 July 2011 when a single revelation published in the Guardian blew the corporation’s defence apart.
The story began with the stark news that "The News of the World targeted the missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family in March 2002, interfering with police inquiries into her disappearance". Several years of evasion not to mention three decades of raw power crumbled to dust within days. Political apologists ran for cover, huge capitalist firms pulled their advertising money from the NotW, a boycott campaign launched on social networks garnered thousands of supporters extending to Times (and therefore NI) journalist Caitlin Moran. The police could no longer claim, as they had done throughout this period, that there was nothing further to look into.
Before the week was out the Murdoch’s had decided to close the paper down. The spineless Ed Miliband, having waited until the bully lay bleeding on the ground, finally called for a public inquiry into the conduct of NI. The company’s slavish ally, David Cameron, decided he no longer had any options and agreed to set up a judge-led investigation which became the Leveson Inquiry. By that time in any case there were already three separate police investigations under way, Operations Weeting (into phone-hacking), Elveden (into police corruption) and Tuleta (into computer hacking). No senior politician can take any credit for the exposure of News Corporation, on the contrary they either explicitly (Cameron, Blair) or implicitly (Miliband, Brown) helped protect them from scrutiny and justice.
To be fair Watson, a parliamentary enforcer for Gordon Brown, doesn’t pretend otherwise. His own confrontation with the evil empire has clearly taken its toll on him and there are some very confessional parts of the book which illustrate that: his marriage breaks down, he has alcohol problems and becomes increasingly paranoid. It’s hard to see whether and to what extent the whole experience really shook up his world view but it is telling that he reminds us of his own comment on Newsnight on the evening of the Dowler revelations: "Politicians are frightened of News International. Ed Miliband is as guilty as David Cameron and Nick Clegg, he said. Jeremy Paxman checked with Watson whether he had just included his own leader in that list. He had."
Whether because it was rushed into production or because of the limited talent of the authors this is not a particularly well-written book. The style veers uneasily between noirish crime thriller and technical political reporting and can’t quite succeed as either. The decision to write about one of the authors (Watson) in the third person is an odd, but not crucial, quirk. These flaws are overcome, however, by the jaw-dropping nature of much of the material unearthed during this incredible affair.
Prime ministers and their cabinet members are wined and dined by corrupt media executives and if that doesn’t work threatened to be careful not to upset the company. Senior police are bribed and, when quietly pushed out of their posts, employed on huge salaries by their paymasters. A private investigator is murdered after raising concerns about corruption and the police officer who shuts down the murder inquiry later takes over his vacant job. The victims of some of the most tragic murders in recent British history (Soham, Milly Dowler, 7/7) are callously hacked by the paper that shouted most loudly about being on their side. It would be hard to make a dull tale of events as compelling as these but the mouth waters at what could have been spun from them by a writer like James Ellroy or the Wire’s David Simon.
The really significant political questions are, however, unexamined in Dial M for Murdoch and that, I think, is its main fault.
Murdoch and his grim family got away with their criminal behaviour for so long because they had accumulated immense power. But they were not only allowed to accrue this power — they were encouraged and helped to do so. News International is not a separate, special or aberrant part of the capitalist society we inhabit, rather it is part of the fabric.
The watershed political moment of the last half century was the emergence of Thatcherism in the UK and Reaganism in the US. Before that the most advanced capitalist societies in the world had been forced to concede significant social provision and collective rights to the workers they exploited. Afterwards we saw trade unions repressed and legally shackled, public services dismantled or ‘marketised’, social welfare stripped to the core and all the most powerful bosses’ institutions (banks, the media) deregulated. The share of wealth paid in wages dropped sharply, profits rose and the painstaking progress in reducing inequality since 1945 was rapidly reversed. The unaccountable power accumulated by News International was not an incidental or marginal part of these developments, it was a crucial part of reasserting the power of capital over labour.
Murdoch was in the forefront of destroying the power of labour in Britain; sometimes directly as in the case of the print unions at Wapping, but at least as important in the relentless anti-union, anti-collective poison poured out by his mega-selling papers.
Having enjoyed a mutual love affair with Thatcher he began to take it for granted that he could pick and choose Prime Ministers and their policies. Political leaders related to this not by challenging him but by courting his support. Tony Blair responded to the famous Labour election defeat of 1992 by concluding that News International were probably right that "It was the Sun wot won it" and resolving to make his party acceptable to Murdoch. Alistair Campbell, Gordon Brown, Ken Livingstone and Ed Miliband followed Blair’s lead. They studied the power of Murdoch just as they did that of capital generally. It was anti-union, anti-welfare, anti-tax and aggressively pro-market. It was hostile to everything the labour movement was supposed to be about.
The response of any self-respecting socialist would be to challenge it, to work tirelessly to build an alternative to it. The whole New Labour crew had neither self-respect nor socialism in their veins however. They bowed before News International just as they bowed before capitalist power in general. Tom Watson distinguished himself during this period only by threatening and cajoling those Labour MPS who were inclined to show more backbone and principle.
Society will be marginally healthier and more open to alternative ideas if the Murdoch empire really does fall. It is already better for the decline in its reputation and power. But there have been previous Murdochs and there will be more to come. Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail and Richard Desmond’s Express and Star are smaller, more localised versions of the same toxic model. In every bourgeois society an overwhelmingly right-wing popular press feeds a combined diet of reactionary prejudice and celebrity trivia to a mass audience which then finds it increasingly hard to digest anything more nutritious. The work carried out by these press barons is as central to the survival of the ruling class as their control of the commanding heights of industry. Its purpose is to ensure victory in the industrial class conflict by giving them the most powerful weapon in the battle of ideas.
The crimes of News International were not the work of a rogue reporter, or even, as the company later claimed, a number of rogue reporters or a rogue paper. Watson and Hickman conclude their account with the suggestion that it was a case of a "rogue corporation". The truth is something the book’s authors are not prepared to consider - Murdoch and his rotten company is the product of a rogue economic system. The answer has to be more than the fall of the house of Murdoch. The whole of the labour movement has to fight the battle of ideas on our side with the determination and co-ordination shown by our rulers.