Ireturned to Cambridge last week, after many years away, and as I struggled to reacquaint myself with the entrenched social and practical dysfunctionalities that go by the name of Cambridge colleges (one has to admire their resistance—at once stoic and hysterical—to the modern world), I found myself gripped by an altogether more contemporary drama. It involved young victims of abduction, indignant Twitter moms, wronged celebrities (Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller in starring roles), police corruption, former prime ministers and the royal family, and an email archive allegedly lost on the slow boat to Mumbai—an astonishing chain of events and revelations that led from the gutter press to the polished-oak-and-leather sanctums of the British political establishment. At the epicentre of this radiating scandal: the improbable crime of voicemail abuse.
I am talking of course of the meteoric demise of that great contribution to the international media, the News of the World. A 168-year-old newspaper that at its peak had a circulation of 8.5 million, it was owned by the most powerful media mogul in the world, Rupert Murdoch, until he axed it one humid July afternoon.
Our first few evenings back amid the Cambridge spires, we were at the TV screen, chomping our way through bags of salt and vinegar chips, agog at the unfolding story. At one level, we were watching a parable about the new ethic of British public life. In the past, British misconduct tended to come with a modicum of discretion, a little self-effacing humour. Nowadays, it seems to come with a glorious, brazen-faced cheek—a reality-defying hubris that may be found in elected MPs (remember the expenses scandal?) as well as in British tabloid press.
End of the World: (clockwise from top) Protesters, one of them dressed as Murdoch, protest against the government approving the takeover of BSkyB by Murdoch’s News Corp. in London on 30 June; Colin Myler, editor, News of the World, with the last edition of the paper on 9 July; the UK’s newspapers; and actor Hugh Grant outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 6 July,
Also Read | Sunil’s previous Lounge columns
Among journalists, the fact that the tabloid press used illegal methods like phone-hacking to round out its sensationalist stories was hardly a secret. “Everyone knew. The office cat knew,” was how one News of the World reporter put it to The New York Times. Yet the top management stayed remarkably anxiety-free, seemingly convinced of their immunity to investigation and legal process. Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, once bragged to the press about how the investigation would end: with the editor of The Guardian, the paper that had pursued this story like an exocet, “on his knees, begging for mercy”. That’s more than aggressive self-confidence. It’s a delusive sense of invulnerability. It’s the arrogance of unchecked power.
Now, a full six years after Scotland Yard learned of widespread hacking at the paper, some belated questioning of Murdoch-empire practices is under way. But perhaps a more troubling aspect of the story of News International is the spotlight it throws on the intimate nexus among politicians at either end of the political spectrum, both Labour and Conservative, and the corporate media—the industrial manufacturers of opinion. Brooks and her husband are country neighbours of the Camerons, and the British press has reported how they frequently socialize together—drinks and mince pies at Christmas, horse-riding, games of blind man’s buff. And until earlier this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s press adviser was a former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, who last week was arrested for his role in the scandal and its cover-up.
Rupert Murdoch. Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP
But it’s not just Conservative leaders who were close to Murdoch, his family, and his News International chief executives. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, former prime ministers, were regular hosts to Brooks. So, at a second level the story tells something about how tightly knit the British establishment remains, even after seven decades of welfare state reforms designed to create a more meritocratic society. The News of the World was shut down on the same day that data was published which showed that five British schools—one of which is Eton—send more students to Oxbridge than the combined total from 2,000 other schools across Britain. There is something spoilt at the heart of the oldest continuous democracy of them all. And other democracies would do well to take that as a warning.
Ever since the emergence of modern democracies from the late 18th century onward, it was understood that a free press was an essential part of the division of powers necessary to keep constitutional democracy healthy. The power of the press was critical power, an independent, fourth-branch counterweight to the executive, legislative and judicial powers of the other branches of government.
Yet, today in all of the major democracies, that critical power is either dwindling or is becoming assimilated with political power. Changes in media technology and in corporate financing have altered media ownership structures. Massive consolidation has occurred, with the traditional, often locally owned, print media collapsing (due to technological changes in news gathering and delivery), while new electronic media are on the rise. These require large capital investments (which favour corporate consolidation), and often depend as well on politically granted licences to operate—which impel a greater closeness between political power and critical power.
Murdoch has become the world’s great embodiment of this trend, with his international empire stretching from Sydney to San Francisco and encompassing The Australian, Star News, The London Times, Fox Television and The Wall Street Journal. He was perfectly willing to sacrifice a profitable print newspaper in hopes of preserving what he hoped would be a bigger prize: gaining government permission to acquire the BSkyB TV network, which is valued at £9 billion (around Rs.63,630 crore), as against a few hundred million for the newspaper. That deal has now been aborted: But Murdoch knew that to get deals like that through, you need politicians to be on your side—something you can achieve if you in turn can offer to deliver to them the positive public opinion they need (elsewhere in Europe, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has taken on in his single person both these functions: He runs the country and the media all at once).
In India, there has been much celebration of the print and electronic media’s growth curve. It’s one of the few places in the world where media consumership is growing. Yet more readers and viewers means that some—the media owners—are getting very rich and powerful indeed. The question is: When does that power become too great, and too tightly allied with elected power? It’s one that will press in on us forcefully in coming years.
And in that context, it’s worth noting, underlining, even exclaiming over the fact that The Guardian—the single British paper that tenaciously pursued the News of the World story over several years—is funded by an independent foundation. That kind of financial independence is becoming very rare, as local newspapers are taken over by large media corporations seeking to enlarge their advertising footprint.
We are watching a classic David and Goliath moment, as Murdoch’s giant has been hit and palpably wounded. Maybe he’ll be fine in the end, but let’s relish this moment when a scrappy, old-values independent newspaper can force an international media empire to face its sordid reality, and shame a reluctant government into fulfilling its public responsibility, as opposed to its private obligations, And who knows—in the next episode, that government may even fall. It’s by far the best show running this summer, and as media and power concentrate across the globe, it may be a long time before we see its like again.
Sunil Khilnani is director of the King’s India Institute at King’s College London. Write to him at email@example.com