And if there’s a lesson in all of this it has to be about humility. In the madness surrounding Rupert and James’s appearances before the Culture, Media and Sport Select committee session on Tuesday a number of people reported what was frequently called a lynch mob mentality. I cannot speak to the generality of this sentiment, but it does call to mind the millions of readers who have stuck by the tabloids at their murkiest-- as well as their worthiest-- moments. Now here we are, as readers again, hungry for the salacious, even salivating at the pavlovian prospect of fresh blood from a fallen giant. And what a story.
That is after all Murdoch’s crime. Whatever his knowledge of this specific scandal, whatever his failures of corporate governance, few people would assert that he definitely knew or encouraged the illegal acts alleged to have taken place. It is the atmosphere he fomented in his control over the papers that is certain and repugnant; a combination of the nexus of personal connections between the media, politicians and the police and the vampiric manner in which the press under his dominion basked in the dimly lit spaces of UK politics, breathing silently down the neck of politicians and police officers, campaigning vociferously for victims or against paedophiles, all the while embracing casual page 3 sexual marketeering and garnering circulation from the schadenfreude of the masses.
His papers wield enormous political influence through mechanisms both legal and allegedly illegal, right and proper as well as sinister and menacing. They campaign for the rights of a free press but ruthlessly attack their own critics. They support the dignity of victims but profit from spying on actresses in bikinis. And whatever they do, good or bad, they reflect something of all of us. Judging by numerous independent examinations of stories published by the major tabloids they clearly care more for sales than for truth, and what they sell is what they think we want.
We all know the story of tabloid sponsored schadenfreude. The value of fame and money and high class lifestyles are fed by IV, drip by tantalising drip to a public whose imagination far outstrips their bank accounts. Then when things go wrong, such as in Charles and Diana’s relationship, or a descent into drugs by a popular celebrity, instead of cautious and sympathetic coverage there’s a feeding frenzy in the press-- one that the public willingly buys into. And most people see this as innocent. After all they didn’t tell the papers what to print, but if it’s there, if it’s available anyway then they do want to read it and they will buy it.
The culture of simultaneous reverence for fame and envy of the famous reflects not necessarily a dumbing down, nor a coarsening of our society. It may reflect these things, and we certainly each need to consider our own position in this, but more than either of those it reflects our impotence. We are powerless. Be it the war in Iraq, the bankers and their bonuses, or the political culture, many people in this country find their only voice in the pages of the redtops. When we see the smugness and self-satisfaction of some of those who worked there, we are really seeing what we have been reduced to. These people are not on our side, they are feeding off our worst impulses like bacteria in the gut; symbiotic, useful, but ultimately self-interested and occasionally malign. The tabloids give vent to our passive-aggressive outrage, spilling forth our vengeance onto the powerful, but they never do anything to change the balance of power, except in their own favour.
But this entry is not a screed about socioeconomic imbalances or social mobility. My point is far simpler. We should sympathise with Murdoch, and assume that he is as “out of touch”, to use his own words, as he seemed on Tuesday. The doddering old man trying desperately to reach out and protect his inner circle- his family, but helpless against an onslaught he knows is justified. Whatever he did is in the past and we need to judge him and his organisation fairly in accordance with the results of the enquiry and police investigation. The only cure for Rupert Murdoch is to pity him, and forget him. Leave him in the past which he helped to create, and through these enquiries and the changes in the law which must follow move on to a better future of our making.
What led up to this was shameful and ugly, but this is a chance for us to foster a real change in our society; to create a more responsible media, and a more honest political class. And to do this we can’t just be passive consumers of what other people write, we have to pay more attention, get involved, campaign, fight and vote for a better system at every chance we get. We can’t keep blaming everyone else for the way this country is run, and for our place in it, not if the people we allow to hold them to account are Rupert and James Murdoch.