It’s hard to believe it was only ten days ago when news broke about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s voicemail. And now the Murdoch empire is in meltdown, not least because Ed Milliband finally decided to change track at his “sod it” meeting last week.
Scroll through this blog and you will see numerous posts – begging, bitter, angry, sarcastic, funny – sharply criticising Ed Miliband, Ivan Lewis and the whole Labour front bench for being useless over Murdoch and BSkyB. They had made a bad call and, although we understand their reasons, they were misguided and short-sighted to take the coward’s path. As it turns out, though, their earlier stance may have been a blessing in disguise. By finally swooping onto the scene last week, reflecting the change in the public mood, the impact was pretty deadly. Labour’s cleverly worded Commons motion on BSkyB made sure of that.
It would be unfair not to give some of the credit to the Lib Dems, notably Nick Clegg, for getting the motion agreed by Cameron. Of the main parties the Lib Dems had always held the most principled stand on Murdoch and media matters. It’s true that they had less to lose than the others, but at least they stuck with it – including Vince Cable, to his cost.
Not to be outdone by Ed Miliband, and aware of its popularity quotient, Clegg has now seized the initiative by speaking out, rather well, on the need for changing our media ownership laws. If we were cynical, we might think that there was some bandwagon jumping going on. Look back to our first blog in September 2010, even before the autumn explosion of hackgate, it was clear that the situation was extremely serious. If we, ordinary folk who are not privy to any special information, knew all this, they knew it too. Yet, all but a tiny handful, failed to act. At best they were afraid, but it will take a leap of faith to trust our politicians to have our interests at heart, rather than their own.
As for the Conservatives, from whom we expect little, there have been a few individuals who have stood out from the rest, above all the excellent Lord Fowler. Otherwise, we realise that, had it been left to David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, the BSkyB takeover would have been dealt with as a completely separate matter and ushered through because the government had to “follow the rules”.
Cameron’s motivation must have been very strong, going beyond personal friendships and (albeit implicit) political ingratiation. We should never lose sight of the fact that the growth of BSkyB, and decline of the BBC, is part of the Conservative programme of increased commercialisation of the public sector. This is a legitimate aim, although we believe it to be against the interests of most of the people and society in general. And no one should forget that this is still part of their ideology, which they will do their best to further in both the new Communications Act and Judge Leveson’s inquiry. The Tory dream will no doubt be tempered by Clegg and Cable’s pressure, but how much will depend on other deals and trade-offs within the coalition.
What now? As each day dawns, the scandal grows and everyone knows that more newspapers will be drawn in. Murdoch may be hoping that, by comparison, the misdeeds of his own papers won’t seem quite so wicked. But it’s too late. Even without the hacking or other criminality, or the cover-up, he’s been rumbled. We cannot un-know what we do know about his corrupting influence and, should we be threatened with another Murdoch ‘attack’, which is still a strong possibility, we are ready to fight it. Next time, of course, it may not be Rupert himself, or another Murdoch. They are not the only chiefs at News Corporation.
For our own campaign, this is a critical time. Nick Clegg has made some promising statements about using the inquiry to press for changes in media ownership laws, including a desperately needed re-assessment of what is meant by “plurality”, limitations on cross-media ownership and tighter definitions on who is fit and proper. This is welcome news but, if democracy really counts, what we would like to see is the wide establishment of non-corporate models of ownership. On relations between the press and politicians, we must go much deeper than transparency about lunches and dinners. (What about the lobby system?) On regulation, we must not allow media moguls and tabloid editors to con us into believing that their type of self-regulation protects freedom of the press. And we shall, of course, be keeping our beady eyes on the new Communications Act.
Our immediate concern, however, is the impact of the News International scandal on our national newspapers. The News of the World has gone and NI may dispose of its other titles. Who will mop up and buy up? Desmond, the Daily Mail, the Barclay brothers, some oligarch or other? And all this is likely to take place well before the conclusion of any inquiry and new acts of Parliament. Another very important question: how can we help to save jobs put at risk in an already declining industry during straitened economic times?
There are are both problems and opportunities that hadn’t existed before, and all of us need to keep tabs on them. Please keep tabs on us through Twitter.