The more liberal and broadsheet press have, understandably, and in the case of the Guardian deservedly, had a good time with the unfolding crisis around News International.
It was Nick Davies of the Guardian who originally painstakingly uncovered the hacking phenomenon. The Independent too saw its more high-minded approach to journalism vindicated. But the more interesting aspect of press coverage of the affair has been the response of the remaining Murdoch papers and the right-wing press in general.
For the first week or so the Sun ignored the biggest story in the country. By last week that became so absurd they decided to lead their coverage with the story of Murdoch’s apology to the family of Milly Dowler. They were particularly keen to quote the Dowlers’ solicitor Mark Lewis who said “He [Murdoch] apologised many times. I don’t think anybody could have held their head in their hands so many times...” So Rupert’s regret was heartfelt and sincere, right?
The Sun were also keen to ensure their readers knew about the major adverts placed in every other paper apologising for the activities of their parent company. And that the multi-billion pound corporation had to pay thousands of pounds for these adverts — does their penance know no bounds?
Still there were hints already of the old combative News International style. The Sun does not yet have the confidence to openly challenge the holding of a full public enquiry on the hacking scandal. They did, however, run a story on 15 July informing us that “the bill for the public inquiry on phone hacking could run into tens of millions of pounds”. They compared it already to the very long-running and expensive Bloody Sunday inquiry.
This is not a beast that is likely to change its behaviour in any meaningful way. It has now been widely reported that when Ed Miliband publicly called for Rebekah Brooks resignation his aides were contacted by NI to be told “now that you have made it personal for Rebekah we will make it personal for you”. Just a few days later, when Brooks was arrested, Murdoch’s goons perhaps realised that the days when that kind of threat worked were over.
The rest of the right-wing press had a dilemma. It’s one thing to enjoy the fall of your major rival, it’s quite another to allow the backlash against the whole tabloid method and culture to develop without any effective resistance.
Taking advantage of the new market opportunity both the Mail and Express on 17 July offered readers a chance to buy their toxic rags for “only £1”. In the Mail Peter Hitchens was happy to stick a small boot into “the Murdoch press”, but only to clear his throat before his main argument. “Since we are to have a Judicial Inquiry into the wicked Press”, he intoned, “shouldn’t we also have one into wicked politicians?”
Concerned about the possible greater regulation of the tabloid press Hitchens penned a semi-anarchist rant about all the evil things government does: break up families, hold increasing numbers of trials in secret, sell information about us to outsiders, record our emails, spy on our rubbish bins and use airport X-ray machines “to peer sneakily at our naked bodies” . He even comes over all left-wing, reminding us that “newspapers don’t waterboard people, or bundle them off to clandestine prisons. Newspapers don’t bomb Belgrade or Baghdad or Tripoli, or invade Afghanistan”.
News International’s prestige British paper prepared the same case with more nuance. The Sunday Times comment was: “Hopefully a more responsible press will emerge from the recent scandal. But the media and politicians will always have a close relationship of mutual interest and hostility”.
And what a perfect description of the normal state of affairs between government and the press that is. That translates as “our bosses and you have mutual interests. But just in case you ever have the audacity to forget this we are always prepared to unleash our hostility. And you wouldn’t like that to happen now, would you?”