Now the mighty have fallen

25 Jul 11
Peter Wilby

The rise and fall of the Murdoch empire will have no real impact on politics or ordinary people, some commentators argue. They couldn’t be more wrong

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, politicians resemble people who are regularly beaten by their partners but keep going back until they recognise that the relationship is abusive. But what, you might ask, have Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers to do with the price of fish?

Amid the astonishing developments of the past weeks, worldly-wise sceptics argue that the masses care only about jobs, wages, taxes, prices, mortgages, dustbins and football. They say phone-hacking preoccupies only politicians and journalists in the ‘Westminster village’. The public talk about Posh and Becks’s baby and Pippa Middleton’s bottom.

Murdoch was never that powerful, the sceptics stress. It was a myth created by timid politicians and compliant political reporters. People don’t take instructions from newspapers as to how they should vote; Murdoch just backs the party that’s going to win anyway. Besides, no-one under 40 reads newspapers.

So, the argument continues, when the dust has settled, nothing will really have changed. David Cameron will still be in office, Ed Miliband still hopeless and Nick Clegg still hated by everybody.

There are several things wrong with this analysis. First, it misreads how power works. Murdoch’s importance lay in his capacity to set the agenda, control the flow of information, and narrow the scope of debate. Voters do not form their views in a vacuum, Murdoch created the context within which they made up their minds. While newspapers don’t directly influence voting habits, TV and radio producers, internet bloggers and tweeters and, above all, politicians follow the issues highlighted by the press. Newspapers determine who’s up and who’s down, what’s worthy of debate and what isn’t.

Only recently has ‘it’s gone viral on the net’ rivalled ‘the Sun is splashing on it tomorrow’ as a phrase to alarm politicians. To a striking extent, the Murdoch political agenda – low taxation, light business regulation, marketisation of the public sector, shackles on unions, a semi-detached relationship with the European Union – has also been the British political agenda of the past three decades.

Second, Murdoch eroded the boundaries between state power and media operations. This is also true of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and of many authoritarian regimes. In Britain, it was true of Lord Beaverbrook, the Express newspapers owner who served as a government minister in both world wars, and of the Mirror Group when old Labour was in power.

But Murdoch and his acolytes, including his extended family, operate on an international scale. They alone crossed the party divides, drawing into their circle whoever was in power, holding social events to which prime ministers dared not refuse invitations.

Italians can vote out Berlusconi, but the British couldn’t vote out the man who summoned aspirant political leaders and judged their fitness for power. He behaved rather like a monarch, except the Queen’s views can be ignored, and his couldn’t. In the minds of Cabinet ministers, he counted far more than elected MPs. He didn’t need to issue direct orders. Politicians, like Murdoch’s editors, learned to second-guess him.

Third, confidence and momentum count in politics. The perception that Cameron is in charge of events has been shaken, the morale of his followers damaged. When it comes to mainstream policies such as spending cuts, the public’s willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt will be a little less, his supporters’ faith a touch less certain, his own confidence less secure. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has shown that he can rise to the occasion.

So the answer to the question – has anything changed? – is that everything has. Politics, Bismarck said, is the art of the possible and there are now many more possibilities than before the hacking scandal emerged. Perhaps Miliband, and the political class collectively, will fail to exploit them. All the same, it is bliss in this dawn to be alive.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman

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