This post was originally published in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on Wednesday 9 November
James Murdoch knows his future as the heir apparent is hanging by a thread. As he prepares for Thursday’s second, and crucial, appearance before MPs, he will reflect that he remains in his job only thanks to family loyalty, a Saudi prince and some weak questioning last time. For all the hullaballoo surrounding his first appearance before the Commons culture and media select committee in July, the young Murdoch managed to bat away the questions easily as he chaperoned his smarting and near-silent father, Rupert, who was sitting alongside him. The amateurishness of most of his inquisitors – a perennial problem with parliament’s weak committee system – helped his cause.
Since then the questions have mounted. In September the News of the World’s former legal manager, Tom Crone, told MPs he was “certain” James Murdoch had been informed about the now famous email showing that phone hacking went beyond one rogue reporter. Murdoch had told MPs in July that he had not seen the email when he signed off the settlement to Gordon Taylor in 2008. Both cannot be right.
News International’s senior figures are fighting for survival. Many shareholders in its global arm, News Corporation, have signalled their disquiet. Murdoch Jr survived a vote at the company’s AGM in California a month ago only because of the company’s preferential share arrangements, which are skewed towards family and friends.
Is he, as some have described, a dead man walking? Thursday’s session will provide clues but is unlikely to produce the killer punch. For that, attention will turn to the next stage of the Leveson inquiry, which will hear from the victims. The important thing is that Leveson differentiate between specific crimes – and many of the allegations do revolve around criminality – and the broader conclusions about the UK media.
Almost every day brings further damaging revelations about News International. The spying antics of the private detective Derek Webb are just the latest. It seems that anyone who came into News International’s orbit was tailed or bugged. The Metropolitan police inquiry confirmed last week that the number of possible victims of phone hacking has risen to 5,800 – far higher than previously thought.
The company has launched a damage limitation exercise on all fronts. It is desperately seeking to reach out-of-court settlements with as many people as possible. Some estimates put the total bill at £200m – a sizeable chunk even for NI. Some in the organisation are seeking to learn the lessons. One of the few slivers of light in this tawdry affair has been the strong coverage devoted by the Times and Sky television to the actions of their bosses. That takes gumption, even if the bosses’ power is fading fast.
Since the understandably fevered reaction to the Milly Dowler revelations in July, the atmosphere has calmed. Lord Justice Leveson and his team have started proficiently. They are fully aware of the balance they have to strike between recommending measures that will improve journalistic standards while not limiting the ability of reporters to find out the awkward truth that the rich and powerful seek to withhold.
The Press Complaints Commission, under its new chairman, Lord Hunt, is looking afresh at its own practices, which were flawed in both conception and execution. The PCC was a mediator, not a regulator. It needs to start regulating and presiding over standards, in order to stave off the ever strong calls for rules by statute. It is important that the PCC, an organisation long dismissed as toothless, seeks to take the initiative, and presents a strong agenda for reform to Leveson in the new year. Hunt has already begun to ask searching questions and to take some useful advice.
Some media-watchers have been bending the ear of politicians in their attempt to take revenge on Murdoch and to “control” a profession that Tony Blair unwisely described as “feral beasts”. As I made clear in my presentation to Leveson, the real danger facing journalism is that it is too weak. It finds out far too little. It too often swallows the spin and takes no for an answer.
A perfect press does not exist anywhere: it never has and never will. Given the inevitable choice, would we rather have a press that is excessively pliant, cautious and deferential, or one that sometimes gets it wrong? Would we want a media shackled as in France? Not only do privacy laws there prevent much legitimate investigation of financial and other public misdeeds, but more broadly journalists are frightened stiff of offending politicians. How else could one explain the reluctance for five days to publish the embarrassing Sarkozy-Obama taped discussion about Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu? At Index on Censorship we catalogue daily cases of not just egregious harassment of journalists by authoritarian regimes, but the more subtle restrictions imposed by western governments.
Britain’s media remains, mercifully, raucous. Even so it already operates under a vast array of restrictions – from dangerously restrictive libel laws to official secrecy and various self-denying ordinances. The phone hacking affair casts a dispiriting light on the state of journalism. But it is about far more than that. It is most of all about corporate governance. Although other newspapers will be implicated, this was mainly about one media organisation. News International accrued such power that it believed it had impunity to act as it pleased. It dominated public life, dictating to politicians what they should say and do.
That all this happened was an indictment of two generations of politicians, from Tony Blair flying to an Australian island to kneel at the feet of Rupert Murdoch to David Cameron’s intimate Oxfordshire suppers with Rebekah Brooks, and police chiefs taking jollies. One under-reported story in this saga was Blair’s decision to become godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children.
NI executives behaved as they did because they were allowed to by politicians who were in turns cowardly and titillated by the invitation to the corporate top table. This was a vivid example of a corrupted public life. The most heartening factor in the affair is that it was investigative journalism that, finally, extracted the information. If Leveson and the politicians draw the wrong conclusions, if they are lulled into thinking that journalists rather than corporate executives accrued too much power, the consequences for democracy will be stark.