The phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the British establishment in the past week is not only bad news for Rupert Murdoch's News of the World and its parents NewsCorp and News International, who have now had to sacrifice their main paper, it is bad news for the politicians, the police and the capitalist class as a whole.
The scandal that has hit the headlines has had a somewhat muted response among the tabloid newspapers, which may indicate that NOTW is just the tip of the iceberg. What has caused a wave of revulsion and disgust in British society is the revelation that what has been an ongoing scandal centred on the hacking into the mobile phone voicemails of celebrities and members of the Royal family does not stop there, but in fact goes much deeper. The hacking of the voicemails of murder victims and their families (including those killed in the July 7th terrorist attacks in London in 2005) and the families of soldiers killed serving in Afghanistan and Iraq has hit a raw nerve within British society.
Not since the MPs' expenses scandal in 2009 has there been such an outpouring of public outrage. Along with the WikiLeaks revelations late last year, the lid has been lifted ever so slightly on the machinations taking place between the media, parliament and the state, giving the British public just a glimpse of the thorough rottenness that exists just beneath the surface of British capitalism.
NOTW journalists and hired private investigators hacking mobile phones is not new. Public attention was first drawn to this in 2006, when journalists Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were arrested on charges of hacking the voicemails of the Royal household. In 2007 both were imprisoned.
The editor of NOTW at the time, Andy Coulson, resigned his post two weeks prior to the sentencing of Goodman and Mulcaire. Subsequently he became communications officer of the Tories. Yet in January of this year he resigned, most likely forced out, after being unable to shake off the stink of the phone-hacking scandal that was engulfing the whole of 10 Downing Street.
In 2009, NOTW paid out over £2million in out-of-court settlements related to the phone-hacking scandal. Yet revelations in the Guardian newspaper on July 4th have blown the situation wide-open. They allege that Scotland Yard holds evidence that in 2002, at the time of the search for the murdered 13-year old schoolgirl Milly Dowler, NOTW investigator Glenn Mulcaire hacked into the schoolgirl's phone to listen to the voicemails left by family members, in order to scoop the juiciest headlines. When the inbox became full, Mulcaire deleted voicemails in order to make room for more messages. Labour MP Tom Watson has accused NOTW of "perverting the course of justice". However, this was not only an illegal destruction of potentially valuable police evidence. It actually raised the false hope among family members that Milly was still alive.
After the imprisonment of Goodman and Mulcaire in 2007 the police closed the investigation, citing lack of evidence. If the allegations made by the Guardian are found to be correct it will show that the police have sat on evidence in order to derail a serious investigation. Naturally the question arises: in whose interest would the police shut down such an investigation?
At the time of the original investigation the fall-guys were Goodman and Mulcaire, as well as Andy Coulson, who served as Deputy Editor of NOTW from 2000-03 and Editor from 2003-07. In a desperate scramble to contain the damage NewsCorp are again trying to make Coulson the scapegoat, despite the fact that the editor of NOTW at the time was Rebekah Brooks, current Chief Executive at News International, NewsCorp's British newspaper wing. To the chagrin of the Tories, however, this can only serve to further implicate 10 Downing Street in the scandal owing to Coulson's past employment. The consequence may be that Brooks does not receive the same invitation to Christmas dinner at the Camerons’ house that she did in 2010.
Yet the rest of the press persistently points out that it was not Coulson but Brooks who presided over NOTW at the time of the Milly Dowler man-hunt in 2002. This is rather inconvenient for NewsCorp. They wish to explain away these events as belonging to a past period which in no way reflects the attitude of the paper today.
At least this was part of their manoeuvring until they finally had to bend under an enormous public outcry and actually close down the News of the World, as they announced this evening. Until then it was clear that their only real concern was that this scandal could affect sales.
In fact, in an attempt to divert attention away from the present management of the paper, Colin Myler, current editor, said earlier today in an email to staff:
"These allegations about the News of the World are shocking, but it is not the same newspaper that all of you, my colleagues, recognise today." (Metro, July 7th)
Even worse, it was starting to affect corporate sponsorship… Huge multinationals like Ford, Renault and O2 stated that they were withdrawing advertising from NOTW, while a whole host of other big companies were considering doing the same. This would have hit the paper where it hurts - in the profit margins. Like many newspapers these days, NOTW's primary source of income was not from sales but from advertising. It is a big problem when the likes of Ford et al no longer want to be associated with a rag that has a reputation for irresponsibly endangering the search for a missing child and hacking into the private messages of the relatives of dead soldiers.
Bad for business
To compound their bad luck, it is now expected that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will delay until September the government's decision on whether a bid by NewsCorp for majority control of British satellite television provider BSkyB is to be approved. This is owing to the fact that, with 24-hours to go until the deadline for submissions to the government over the issue, submissions have jumped from 60,000 to 100,000 due to the scandal. It is estimated that this will take civil servants the best part of two months to go through.
As a result shares in BSkyB have fallen by 4 per cent in the past few days. NewsCorps shares are down 3.6%, wiping out $1.7bn of its total share value. This is bad news for employees at NewsCorp, who have already responded with deep anxiety to warnings by Rebekah Brooks of the austere times that lie ahead:
"'There are tough decisions coming. Costs will need to be cut and savings made,' Ms Brooks warned, adding that one option may be 'seven-day working' across editorial brands that have long been run as independent rivals." (Financial Times, July 7th)
So the message is clear: if the company is going to take a hit to its profit margins (a fact that will be exacerbated by the withdrawal of so many corporate sponsors) it is the workers who will have to pick up the tab. Does any of this sound familiar?
The Milly Dowler affair precipitated a whole range of similar allegations, such as the hacking of phones of the parents of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells - the victims in the Soham murders. On Tuesday night Channel 4 news reported:
"When Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman went missing nearly a decade ago, there was a national outpouring of grief. But while the rest of the world mourned for the two girls, it's claimed that NOTW secretly and illegally arranged to hack into their parents' phones."
To add further to the stink emanating from NewsCorp, new allegations have been revealed that NOTW was not only guilty of invasion of privacy, but also of gangster-like methods, targeting detectives who were getting too close to the truth. One such murder detective, Dave Cook, appeared on the BBC's Crimewatch in 2002 investigating the unsolved murder from 1987 of private investigator Daniel Morgan, found in the car park of a South London pub with an axe in his head. Within days of the Crimewatch broadcast Cook was told by colleagues that he was being targeted by NOTW. The Channel 4 News reporter on Tuesday July 5th said:
"What is so disturbing about this allegation is the timing of the targeting of Dave Cook, because in the murder investigation that he was leading, suspects in the case were private investigators who, it's alleged, had close links to the NOTW".
Clearly the intention was to intimidate and discredit Detective Cook. Channel 4 news went on to report claims that a meeting was held in December 2002 at Scotland Yard between the police and Rebekah Brooks, where the police are alleged to have confronted her on this issue. Whatever the outcome of such a meeting, the fact that this has only come to public attention almost 10 years later implies a cover-up.
Such an assertion could easily fall into the realm of conspiracy theory. Yet this week News International have, in a gracious bid to help the investigation, handed over material to the police that shows cheques were made over the years to the police, authorised by former Editor Andy Coulson. On top of that Rebekah Brooks has admitted as much in a public enquiry: that NOTW was in the business of paying police officers for information. In the case of the 7/7 bombings, information that could only have been take from official police records.
What all this reveals is the fact that Rupert Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson and NewsCorp act in the belief that they are above the law. For many years another of Murdoch's tabloids, The Sun, has cultivated the image of "Kingmaker" in British politics, with Blairites and Tories alike falling over themselves to gain patronage from the Murdoch cabal.
"Mr Murdoch’s tolerance for invasions of privacy by his reporters – and the belief that he would not be subject to sanctions by governments that owed him political favours – gave his editors confidence. Ms Brooks herself has formidable connections, being friendly with the Murdoch family and David Cameron, prime minister.” (Financial Times, July 6th)
The confidence that the FT talks about is the confidence to flout the law as they believed that they were above it. By owning the most widely read publications in the English language NewsCorp has, over decades, used this position to entrench itself within the British political establishment. In its ever more rapacious drive to out compete its rivals and capture a larger share of the market, it carried out the most audacious and despicable acts of law breaking, invasion of privacy, corruption and perverting the course of justice in order to grab the headline making stories. That they are so entrenched within the political elite, with an army of muck-raking private detectives able to destroy the reputations of policemen, politicians and businessmen alike, ensured for them impunity.
The phone-hacking scandal is, however, bad news for the ruling class. Like the MPs' expenses scandal, the rifts with the Church of England and the low standing of the Monarchy, this once again has served to lower the credibility of the capitalist system as a whole.
At this moment the "scales are falling from the eyes” of many working people feeling the severe pinch of austerity. We saw this on the June 30th strikes of 1 million teachers and civil servants. Millions of working men and women who are beginning to question what kind of an unjust world we are living in, where working people are being made to pay for the crisis as bankers bonuses boom and the rich get richer. The credibility of the bourgeois press as a whole has taken a hit, therefore limiting the effect they have when they try to encourage workers not to strike or that in these times of austerity "we are all in this together”. This kind of scandal, which reveals very sharply the stinking hypocrisy of the ruling class, will only reinforce this new-found questioning of the system.
The law is a spider’s web where the small get caught and the great tear it up. The so-called neutral role of the state and incorruptible police is exposed for the myth that it is, and in its place what is revealed is that there is one law for the rich and one law for the poor.
There has been hand-wringing from the MP's as various calls are made to "have a serious moral re-think" and that the whole newspaper industry must be subject to public enquiries, new rules and regulations, etc. But this misses the point entirely. Weren't such rules, regulations and laws put in place in order to stop the likes of journalists and hired detectives hacking mobile phones? Yet this week has demonstrated that when the press is privately owned and competes in the market for private profit, that is the bottom line. All principles, precedents, rules and regulations, especially in the newspaper industry, go to the wall in the name of private profit.
As MPs have made the call for a "public inquiry", the response of NewsCorp has been that "we'll investigate ourselves" - an in-house investigation. This shows the utter contempt that they have for the law, believing they are a law unto themselves. It also shows a startling degree of unreality, when the logical question has been put by commentators - how is Rebekah Brooks meant to impartially "investigate" herself?
Labour MP Tom Watson has called for the suspension of James Murdoch, son of Rupert and CEO of NewsCorp, "from office". The point here is that James Murdoch wasn't "elected". As a private outfit, this is only a decision that can be made within NewsCorp by the owners. To go any further than that, such as a government decree, would involve encroaching on the rights of private property, something this government will never do.
Furthermore, how is a public enquiry to be set up and who is it to be led by? The government has shown to have more than a vested interest, and the police has been shown to have its hand firmly within the jam jar. At the same time NOTW have been very obliging in handing over material that implicates former editor Andy Coulson. Of course the voluntary nature of this cooperation allows them to select which material to surrender. It is also a desperate measure to show themselves to be "co-operating" once they knew that the truth was going to get out anyway.
Now they have gone one step further and have announced the closure of the News of the World. Reading the speech that James Murdoch made to staff today, it is very clear that this is a damage limitation operation. He said that the good things the News of the World does [which good things we may ask?], "have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong - indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company".
"The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself."
He added that, "Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued. As a result, the News of the World and News International wrongly maintained that these issues were confined to one reporter.
"We now have voluntarily given evidence to the police that I believe will prove that this was untrue and those who acted wrongly will have to face the consequences. This was not the only fault.
"The paper made statements to Parliament without being in the full possession of the facts. This was wrong.
"The company paid out-of-court settlements approved by me. I now know that I did not have a complete picture when I did so. This was wrong and is a matter of serious regret."
This is a blatant attempt to pass the buck, to find yet more scapegoats onto whom the owners can offload responsibility for the scandal. The idea is to bury the News of the World, hoping that with time the scandal will blow over. In the meantime they will set in motion the plans to publish under a new masthead. Some more heads will have to fall, some may even end up in prison, but these will be the sacrificial lambs who will be presented to the public to cover for the many others who are seeking to escape public retribution.
Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political editor, has commented on the cynicism of the Murdochs: "My guess is that the Murdochs have sacrificed the News of the World in order to salvage their television ambitions." This highlights the fact that the concerns of the owners are more about profit and not doing real justice. NOTW generated profits of about £10 million, BSkyB generates £1 billion, with a potential likehood of that figure rising to £2 billion within a few years. The fact that Rebekah Brooks is keeping her job and was initially leading the investigation, overseeing it with the police, underlines the lack of seriousness in really revealing all the facts and punishing the perpetrators.She is seen as a buffer between the Murdoch clan and any serious hassle - of course, she also knows where the bodies are buried, to coin a phrase.
Former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott – who appears to be a victim of the phone hacking – has explained that, “This isn't one rogue newspaper – there are many more and the inquiry has got to flush them out," adding that this is "a typical management stunt of Mr Murdoch.
All this is true, but what is going to be done about it? How can an investigation involving some of those we were responsible for running the News of the World be impartial? How can anyone trust the police who will be involved, considering that some of its officers have been implicated in the scandal? Such an inquiry would not be sufficient.
The only way that a real public enquiry will be able to get to the bottom of this issue is by fully opening the books of NewsCorp to public scrutiny. In order to do that NewsCorp must be taken out of private hands and nationalised under the democratic control of the working class. That is the only way a thorough investigation can be guaranteed. Furthermore, what this scandal reveals is the way the bourgeois media functions. It is not a source of "objective" news. It is owned by capitalists who have a class interest to defend. It is sufficient to see how the media covers strikes and protests against attacks on the working class, against cuts in pensions, in healthcare and so on. It is the whole media that must be put under public control if we are to rally have "objective" news coverage.
The rest of the media are now hurriedly trying to patch up the damage, by presenting this whole scandal as being due to a few "rotten apples" when in reality it is the whole system that is rotten. What the top strategists of capital are now seriously concerned about is the cumulative effect of a series of scandals, from the MPs' expenses scandal - which exposed the very institution of parliament - to the banking crisis and the huge bonuses of the bankers, to this recent scandal, on the consciousness of millions of ordinary working people at a time when they are being asked to bear the brunt of the present economic crisis.
In the not too distant future we will be looking back at this scandal as one more element in the build up to a huge explosion of anger on the part of the working people of this country. Millions of workers who normally do not go onto the streets, do not strike, do not protest, who consider themselves "moderates" and reasonable people will draw the conclusion that to revolt is also reasonable.