Murdoch's Would-Be Champions Of Free Speech

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One might consider it a major story. A worldwide corporation seeking to inflate powers which are already monopolistic — and asking the government to declare that there’s no chance such powers will be abused in years to come.

But anyone paying current attention knows that employees of this corporation have for years been committing serious crimes, and concealing the fact in persistent collusion with the nation’s guardians of law and order.

Yes, this is the story of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, its News of the World phone-buggers, and their chums at Scotland Yard. The context is Murdoch’s bid to reorganise his effective monopoly over British satellite television, so as to create a total monopoly: one which, once sanctioned by the government, he undertakes to run with deep respect for all canons of liberal democracy.

The tale is made richly comic by Rupert’s peerless record as undertaker to undertakings. But the media majority has ignored it. Without The Guardian’s investigative courage News Corp’s scandalous cover-up would have succeeded perfectly — though the Financial Times is now running some useful follow-up.

This demonstrates that the mainstream British press is now as corrupt as Florence under the Medicis, though without the compensating artworks. Where not directly controlled by Murdoch — as the predominant specimens are — it’s increasingly driven by his scabrous business model, one fuelled by burning-up ersatz celebrity, largely of its own manufacture. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to run this trade without criminal disregard for the data-protection laws, and clearly the practice hasn’t been exclusive to News Corp.

What the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is supposedly considering is whether News Corp’s purchase of those shares in the Sky network which it doesn’t already own will reduce news media diversity in the UK. Jeremy Hunt, in command of DCMS, has provisionally indicated that he thinks not, and this makes some logical sense as current events show that little remains to reduce. Allegedly a Naval Rating once charged with setting fire to his bed in a seaman’s hostel defended himself by saying the bed was on fire when he got into it.

Actually, both of Britain’s big political parties have been diligent in setting the bed ablaze. The Tories let Murdoch acquire The Times and the Sunday Times, then assisted him in setting up the effective satellite monopoly now intended to become absolute. All this was done by trashing laws and policies once used to sustain media competition — and Murdoch gave Margaret Thatcher dog-like loyalty in return.

Until, of course, it was clear that her successors were about to lose office, and Tony Blair would be The Man.

Some negotiation was required to ensure that Labour in office would sustain all of News Corp’s illicit privileges: one can find some dark amusement in the memoirs of Lord Woodrow Wyatt who designed Rupert’s alliance with Margaret Thatcher and was appalled to learn that principles had nothing to do with it.

Just now we’re seeing a vast diversionary pantomime, in which News executives make like champions of democratic liberty — extolling the right of newspapers to treat the activities of anyone anywhere as journalistic raw material. This doesn’t seem contentious if the instance is an oil company dodging international agreements about the disposal of dangerous wastes. But things are less clear when it’s a pair of actors (Jude Law and Sienna Miller, as recently) sorting out their relationship with each other. Are Rupert Murdoch’s snoopers entitled to eavesdrop on their discussions? Many people think not, which is why News Corp has striven — fiercely, but at last unsuccessfully — to conceal the crimes committed during such operations.

Subtle difficulties of principle are involved, arising from Britain’s accession to European human rights law, which restricts freedom of expression to the extent required for protection of personal privacy: a protection defeated only by showing disclosure is necessary to the public interest.

There is nothing subtle, though, about the fear and loathing this law inspires in News Corp and its allies. It abolishes kiss-and-tell stories, in which, for instance, a star developed by reality television has an affair with a celebrated footballer and sells to a News Corp tabloid her account of the man’s betrayal of his wife. Nor are the prospects much better for whip-and-tell stories, like the News of the World’s revelation that Max Mosley, the motor-racing boss, was paying ladies to join in sado-masochistic parties.

Max being the son of Sir Oswald, Britain’s late Nazi sympathiser of the 1930s, Mr Justice Eady might have considered this a public matter — could the News of the World support its claim that Mosley was financing celebrations of Nazi genocide. It couldn’t — and the participants, though acting commercially, turned out to be old chums, planning a freebie for Max’s upcoming birthday.

It’s improbable, though, that the damages won did much to improve things for Mosley’s family — and here we come to the issue of prior restraint, as in the case of Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, who has an injunction to stop Murdoch’s Sun denouncing him as a "love rat" engaged in "romps" with "big-busted Big Brother star Imogen Thomas". (A lubricious house-style exists for Sun sermons on infidelity: equal parts Savonarola and strip-club barker).

Giggs’ lawyers have successfully argued that publicity just exacerbates the harm his own actions have done to his family, without serving the public interest in any honest sense. This has done Giggs and Thomas no good at all, because word-of-mouth, internet exchanges and parliamentary discussion have made them the nation’s most notorious celebrities. If stuff like this harms innocent bystanders — children, for instance — subsequent compensation will be close to pointless.

Of course, in the internet age the courts won’t find it easy to enforce orders against disclosure. But means can and will be found if public opinion supports the privacy principle — and it seems to, since tabloid papers straining ruthlessly to prop up their failing sales are very widely detested.

And here comes the diversion: an attempt at tabloid public service. Sir Fred Goodwin, ex-boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, is detested still more, having trashed his bank via arrogance and incompetence matched by scarcely any competitor.

While doing so, he had adulterous relations with a senior colleague and then requested an injunction to suppress reports of that fact. In granting this, the bench clearly overstepped the line: whatever the public sympathy for privacy law, poll results show that two lovers collaborating in a business which almost capsized the British economy mustn’t enjoy it as a shield.

And it’s now The Sun which is making noble cause of suing for public freedom to discuss the woman’s role.

According to Richard Spearman QC the paper has no wish to publish "salacious or intimate sexual details" — which shows that help from a classy London advocate comes with added chutzpah. It’s just a matter of getting to the bottom of the RBS collapse.

Well, even if financial sector details are a novel departure, The Sun here clearly deserves a victory. Just let’s hope, if it comes, that nobody forgets that News Corp’s attack on the secrets of Fred the Spread (renamed Fred the Bed) goes along with stubborn protection of its own.

Sienna Miller’s bugging case has been settled by payment of £100,000 plus costs — but there are numerous others before the court. The existence at the News of the World of a conspiracy to subvert the law isn’t in doubt, says Mr Justice Vos: the remaining task is to uncover its ramifications within the News Corp business. Meanwhile Lord John Prescott, former deputy prime minister, has gained permission to seek judicial review of Scotland Yard’s indefensible failure to investigate the conspiracy.

No government concerned for its own integrity would give larger public influence to News Corp while such inquiries proceed. David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt may feel that they can get away with it nonetheless and in this, they match the Medicis in cynicism, though nothing else.

 

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