I have been irregularly blogging about the extraordinary Leveson Inquiry into media ethics in the UK, that has to date resulted in the arrest of dozens of journalists and editors, the overnight shuttering of the UK’s largest newspaper, the resignations and possible prosecution of the number 1 and 2 policemen in the nation, the resignation and arrest of the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary and the hacking of over 7,000 phones by private eyes working for newspapers. The phones of sitting cabinet ministers, the phones of murdered children and the phones of a parade of celebrities and innocent bystanders, some of whose lives were destroyed, some with stories of family suicides, of drive-by media killings.
And yet, as the Leveson inquiry rounds into its third phase, this one focused on the relationship between media and politicians (Phase 1 having been about phone hacking and surveillance and Phase 2 about the relationships between newspapers and the police) things are taking an even more destabilizing turn. As The Guardian – the paper that doggedly pursued this story in print year after year against huge resistance – so thoroughly reports, today’s testimony, and more importantly the cache of confidential email chains connecting James Murdoch, scion of the UK’s (world’s?) most powerful and predatory media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, with Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of Culture for the British conservative government, is “the dark heart of this strange affair.”
At issue is the fact that today Robert Jay, the stentorian lead counsel who has been patiently and witheringly interrogating dozens of witnesses over the past few months, was suggesting to James Murdoch’s that his business had traded its support for David Cameron’s conservative party in the last election for Cameron’s commitment to implementing the Murdoch business plan.
That Murdoch’s News Corp empire did cheerlead for Cameron is indusputable. Just as it is certain that it hacked the phones of Labour and Social Democrat candidates, and followed them, and denounced them viciously in countless media outlets. And that Cameron won. And that sure enough, soon after the election his new government slashed the BBC’s funding and slashed the media regulator Ofcom’s funding, as the Murdoch’s had asked for. Their kingmaking price.
The last plum was going to be the approval of the purchase of Britain’s largest broadcaster BSkyB by Murdoch’s News Group. Murdoch already owned a minority share but now he wanted the whole ball of wax, an enormous new concentration of media power in the hands of the man already running the show. The same man who owns Fox News and all the rest of Fox too.
There was resistance even within Cameron’s team. But the PM did everything he could to make it happen. He assigned a pro-Murdoch guy, his Secretary of Culture, Jeremy Hunt, to run Ofcom’s regulatory review, and Jeremy Hunt promptly started selling the farm. What hundreds of emails entered into the public record today prove is that, as Nick Davies says:
At a time when Hunt was required to act in the legal role of a judge overseeing Ofcom’s inquiry into the bid, this evidence suggests he was secretly supplying News Corp with information about his confidential dealings with Ofcom, advising them on how to pick holes in Ofcom’s arguments, allowing their adviser to help him prepare a public statement, offering to “share the political heat” with them, and repeatedly pledging his support for their position.
Despite this the deal never happened. Because the phone hacking scandal happened instead. And suddenly this deal was way off the table. And months later, here we are, with the grand old man himself, Rupert Murdoch, on the block tomorrow, facing Leveson for the second time in person. It should be interesting.
There is so much to consider in all this. One thing I think about is how Murdoch has been bargaining with prospective prime ministers for decades, dating back to Thatcher at least. They have all bent the knee to him and all been anointed. His man (or woman) has always won. So why now? Why is this suddenly out in the open and being discussed as the unethical behaviour it is?
And the answer is: paper. Or, if not paper, then at least paper trails. Though these are electronic paper trails. But it is the cache of documents, printable, that is raising the temperature in the UK. Because no matter how long something has been suspected and known anecdotally, it is paper proof that counts in our literate society. If you can’t print it out it has little power.
But if there are more emails that emerge – and there are many thousands more to be read into the record – that show that Cameron himself knew and approved of – and maybe even sought out and asked for – a deal whereby Murdoch gets Cameron elected and Cameron lets Murdoch rule the British airwaves, that would be Orwellian indeed. If it can be proven it will likely bring down the government and engender a profound democratic crisis in the UK.
This could not and would not have happened before digital networks, before email trails. Discussions would have remained private, untraceable, uncopiable, rather than infintiely shareable, downloadable, reconstitutable and all the rest. In oral discussions the words vanish forever. In literate ones, documents can be destroyed. But in the digital sphere, Wikileaks leaks 250,000 cables. In the digital sphere, Scotland Yard’s forensive IT team was able to reconstitute over 300 million emails that had been vigorously deleted by News Corp, all of which are now in the hands of police. In the digital sphere, emails travel.
The scalability of digital conversation-capture means this kind of forensic parsing of conversations may become the new normal, for better or worse. Heck, within the defense establishment it already is. Every keystroke of ours is parsed by intelligent programs running algorithms to determine national threats. And others trying to sell us cat food.
One more thought: there has yet to be a turncoat in this drama, a snitch, someone who grabs a plea-bargain and spills the beans. But it will happen as soon as people actually start going to jail. There are just too many executives with everything to lose who know where all the bodies are buried. Someone is going to talk and it will be explosive.
So where this will lead is still very, very uncertain. But I’m watching it all unfold, via the web, transfixed…