The era is gone, thank heavens, in which some newspapers, notably The Times, perceived themselves as a branch of government. For more than a century, a few editors with acceptable table manners, counterparts of Trollope’s Tom Towers, enjoyed an intimacy with prime ministers rooted in the latter’s confidence that they were on the same side.
(Max Hastings, The Spectator, 16 July 2011)
It’s been a while since I wrote anything in the ‘non-tech’ segment of this blog—but the telephone hacking scandal has led to such a malignant campaign against the Prime Minister and the Government that I feel impelled to express a slightly different view from the sidelines—and I should say outright that while I shall be defending the Government, I find no excuses to make for News International, its founder and its employees and that I fully share the glee others are experiencing at their nemesis.
As often, I feel opinion fails to take account of the historical perspective when assessing current affairs: what seems fair or right in view of current practice sometimes seems grossly inappropriate or inadequate when compared with what used to be done a comparatively short while ago.
It seems obvious from the evidence now accumulated that individuals within the now-defunct News of the World engaged in criminal behaviour extending even, if reports are to be believed, to hacking into the telephones of senior members of the Royal Family. It is distinctly possible also that Mssrs Murdoch Sr. and Jr. were aware of these practices. It is truly appalling that such revolting behaviour should have occurred in a country otherwise rightly believed to be exempt from the scourge of corruption—yet obviously, the event’s significance arises out of its wider historical context: that of the rise of Mr Murdoch’s evil empire. I use the phrase deliberately to describe an organisation headed by a man who has waged a deliberate, relentless assault on the British establishment, its traditions and its way of life for well over a generation—and, sadly, a successful one.
In 1981, Mr Murdoch acquired control of The Times, Britain’s most distinguished newspaper, which then had an unblemished, two-hundred-year-old history as a journal of record and also, as pointed out by Max Hastings in the The Spectator article I quoted above, as the newspaper of the Establishment, read alike by one’s parents, house master, vicar and, one assumed, by the Queen herself. During the nineteenth century, it was not infrequent for the Foreign Office to approach The Times and ask for continental intelligence, which was often superior to that conveyed by official sources. I am but little interested, I have to admit, in the News of the World, acquired by Mr Murdoch in the 1960s and instantly turned by him into, as far as I can tell, essentially a pornographic newspaper read by the working classes. His assault on The Times, however, had an altogether different, and far more sinister, significance.
No sooner had Mr Murdoch acquired Britain’s most distinguished broadsheet, than he proceeded to turn it into a propaganda instrument for his own brash anti-establishmentarianism. His sulkily radical views appear to have been shaped at Worcester College, Oxford. As Martin van der Weyer put it in the same issue of The Spectator already quoted above:
At Worcester, Murdoch kept a bust of Stalin on his mantelpiece, was blackballed for the Rustics cricket team in which I once played, politicked avidly in the Labour Club, and was contemptuous of the idle, washed-out English ruling class which I certainly aspired to join. So I’m guessing we wouldn’t have been the best of pals.
Immediately after returning to his native land, he used the media empire he built up after inheriting it from his father to support a platform of radical reform, including universal free health care, free education for all Australians to tertiary level, recognition of the People’s Republic of China, and public ownership of Australia’s oil, gas and mineral resources. He early on affirmed his radical republicanism, going so far as to forswear his Sovereign, becoming a naturalised American citizen—contrary to the duty of his allegiance.
It is well-documented, of course, that Mr Murdoch’s News International conglomerate has had a history, in recent times, of switching its support from one to the other of the main political parties, most famously by backing the Socialist side in the 1997 general election that ushered in the Blairist administration and the radical constitutional experimentation and relentless public spending increases that reshaped Britain beyond all recognition over the next thirteen years, before suddenly opting to support the Tories in 2010.
I have chosen to comment in extenso on Mr Murdoch’s somewhat murky past because I believe it to be the most significant issue in the current controversy on telephone hacking: even a cursory look at his personal history shows that what we are ultimately dealing with is a man who has consistently acted an enemy of British interests and traditions and as a promoter of Socialist or, at best, radical political experimentation. That this represents a deeply-held conviction cannot seriously be doubted—and that such a man can be regarded as a friend of Conservative values is akin to turkeys plebisciting the institution of Christmas. It was thus not only a serious error of judgement on the part of the Prime Minister to have recruited Mr Andrew Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, in an advisory capacity when he was still Leader of the Opposition, and to maintain him in a similar role after the election; it was also, much more significantly, an aberration on the part of the first Tory Prime Minister since 1964 whose background and education naturally, indeed unquestionably, shaped him for public office.
Why did Mr Cameron do this? Probably because his generation was the first to grow up in an England where the fitness of his class to conduct public affairs and—much more crucially—always act in the public interest was no longer taken for granted. He felt irresistibly, indeed irrationally, compelled to compromise with a man and with an organisation that had consistently worked for fifty years to destroy everything that he stood for, rather like the insect is drawn to the candle that will destroy it.
Yet the Prime Minister’s momentary accommodation of the vulgar radical press baron and of his sickening sybarites does not, of course, in any way show the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Miliband—and his party that, for so long, enjoyed the favours of a man whose intellectual, social and political radicalism they shared throughout their long period in office—in anything but the most unfavourable light: Mr Miliband’s predecessors, Mssrs Blair and Brown, benefited immensely from News International’s support, and they pursued a radical political agenda that involved destroying the constitutional and social structure that had been shaped, over a considerable period of time, before they assumed office—and which they and Mr Murdoch were deeply united in detesting. Mr Cameron has only been put in a difficult position over this scandal because he happened to be in office when the details of the criminal activities in which employees of News International were engaged were revealed: that those activities took place under a Labour administration, and that the incestuous relationship between Labour and News International was more extensive, more long-lasting and more solidly based in policy is, absurdly, overlooked: for it should be stressed above all that News International’s support for the Socialists was based on profound political complicity, in a way that Mr Murdoch’s purely tactical recent switch of support to the Tories was not.
I do not for a moment believe that the Prime Minister should resign over this—or indeed that he will. I rejoice—though not for the same reasons as The Guardian—in the end of the Murdoch empire. I doubt that the old Times of William Rees-Mogg, the man whom Mr Murdoch so ignominiously sacked, can be resurrected. But I hope the Tory party will be taught a lesson by this lamentable episode—and the rest of this ancient country with it: that things are best done in the traditional way; that while prudent reform is necessary if the progress that was the mark of England’s greatness is to be maintained; but that its planning, and the running of the country generally, is best left to those whose background and education have prepared them for that station and who, like their fathers before them, are aware that privilege and responsibility go hand in hand.
If the Coalition consistently applies these ancient principles until the end of the current parliamentary term, they have an historic opportunity to reverse the disastrous course taken by preceding administrations with Mr Murdoch's ardent support; and the people of these islands, with the common sense that characterises them, will when required provide the electoral sanction that will allow the monstrous radical alliance embodied by Mssrs Blair and Murdoch—two men with little to show, unlike their predecessors portrayed by Max Hastings, by way of manners—to become but a distant memory.