Time has not appeared to be on Rupert Murdoch’s side in the phone hacking scandal. The stream of revelations about the ethically and legally dubious practices at Murdoch’s media properties seems to have no end. And as the investigations have taken their toll, Britain’s Left has mostly watched in glee, assuming that their longtime adversary was finally receiving his comeuppance.
Yet the schadenfreude seems to have been premature. As the investigations have intensified, Murdoch’s role in it has become ever more peripheral—and it’s increasingly Britain’s liberal media that finds itself on the defensive. Indeed, it now appears likely that the scandal won’t sink Murdoch and his media empire without bringing the rest of the British media industry down with them.
AN ESSENTIAL TRUTH of the phone hacking scandal is that it got its start as much for reasons of partisan politics as of disinterested jurisprudence—and with some good reason. For years Murdoch’s tabloid News of the World had waged a brutal war of words against the British Left. Who could blame those politicians who saw this as an opportunity for payback?
Take the case of Tessa Jowell, M.P. for Dulwich in London and a former Labour government minister who, in 2006, was accused by the tabloid of laundering dirty money through a mortgage application. “Jowellgate” was eventually dismissed as a tabloid fantasy by a Parliamentary investigation, but not before Ms. Jowell was dragged through the journalistic mud. Five years later, she obviously relished the chance to punish her persecutors, going to the police with the claim that her cell phone had been hacked into 28 times during 2006. Jowell’s retribution was swift: The police confirmed that her voicemail had been targeted “very extensively” and News of the World made a settlement with her worth £200,000 ($317,000). The phone hacking scandal thus turned a former political joke into Saint Tessa of Dulwich—patron saint of slighted Lefties.
This is the spirit in which the British Left was looking forward to the Leveson inquiry, established in July 2011 to examine the allegations made against NOTW—as an opportunity to exact revenge, not only for the invasion of their privacy, but for decades of political attacks. But, in that sense, Leveson has largely backfired.
First, there’s the fact that Murdoch won sympathy by appearing contrite and befuddled when he testified before Parliament. And the defining moment in the Leveson inquiry—when a protestor attempted to hit Murdoch with a cream pie, inspiring Murdoch’s wife Wendi to punch him and then try to shove the pie back into the assailant’s face—amounted to a P.R. coup worth millions for the Murdochs.
But, more significantly, the scandal has since spread far beyond the Murdoch empire. The editor of the Daily Mail (a conservative newspaper) admitted that his newspaper had hired private detectives “as a quick way of obtaining phone numbers and addresses to corroborate stories.” In 2005, one of those detectives had been convicted of illegally accessing data and yet the Mail continued to use him until 2007. So, too, did the BBC. The editor of the Times (a highly regarded, politically balanced newspaper) was forced to apologize for the fact that one of his journalists had illegally accessed a police detective’s emails. The Mirror (a left-wing newspaper) also came under fire. Piers Morgan, now Larry King’s replacement on CNN, gave evidence via satellite linkup about journalistic practices during his time as editor of both NOTW and the Mirror. Morgan admitted nothing, insisted that all the accusations were innuendo, and said he was the victim of a political lynching.
Throughout much of this, the most left-wing newspaper of them all—The Guardian—seemed to be having the most fun, acting as though it was entirely above the muckraking and corruption of its colleagues in the press. But eventually even The Guardian was brought low: In December 2011, when the police finally concluded that NOTW probably hadn’t hacked into Milly Dowler’s voicemail after all, The Guardian was forced to print a humiliating retraction: “We should have qualified our original reporting with an additional four words: ‘Reliable sources claim that.’ This would have been an accurate statement of the unchallenged position at the time, as opposed to the assertion of a fact that has, five months later, been questioned, if not actually disproved or denied.” It was the kind of mistake that a school newspaper might make—sensationally reporting a playground rumor as if it were the truth. To make matters worse, a Guardian assistant editor admitted that he too had engaged in phone hacking. This led one former Sun editor to complain, “If you publish [a rumor] in the Sun you get six months' jail and if you publish it in The Guardian you get a Pulitzer prize.”
The Guardian’s volte-face forced the Independent newspaper (a left-leaning broadsheet) to ask if the Leveson inquiry should be shut down. It editorialized that the inquiry was descending into farce—an opportunity for irate celebrities to list their grievances before the world’s press and politicians to pretend to be moral crusaders. But the Independent’s high-minded sobriety has been tarnished by its own damaging scandal. One of its star columnists, Johann Hari, was recently caught plagiarizing quotes and was accused of fabricating anecdotal detail. What made the Hari scandal a surreal metaphor for the schizophrenia of contemporary British public life is that he invented an alter ego to defend himself. “David Rose” was given an email account, a phone number, a life story, and even a desk at the Independent. And he never existed. Mr. Hari has since departed for the United States where he has enrolled in a course in journalism ethics.
IT IS TELLING that Hari has left Britain in order to seek penance. After all, what the Leveson inquiry has revealed is that shoddy journalism and ethical decline is endemic in the British press. In this way, the sheer length of the phone hacking scandal has been of benefit to Rupert Murdoch: The longer it goes on, the more the burden of guilt will be redistributed away from him. The British public now knows that no single man can be blamed for all this depravity. That the outrages followed on so quickly from the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal, in which hundreds of members of Parliament were accused of taking tax payers’ money to subsidize mortgages and home improvements, suggests that there is a wider rot in the system.
There are legal fixes that Parliament could impose: The easiest would be to institute tough fines for anyone found breaching standards adjudicated by the Press Complaints Commission. That would deter editors from pursuing potentially libelous stories. But new regulations wouldn’t really address the point: Most of the things that journalists have been accused of doing were already illegal. What really needs to be tackled is the journalistic profession’s obsession with sensationalism at the expense of fact.
That would require a process of self-criticism that the UK establishment is unused to. It has coasted by for too many years on its reputation for “fairness” and “chivalry,” an arrogant conviction that—unlike the ideologically polarized countries of continental Europe—“we don’t do that sort of thing.” But it now needs to face up to how cheap and nasty British public life has become.
Tim Stanley blogs for The London Daily Telegraph and is the author of The Crusader: the Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan.