Before giving the Murdoch scandal a rest there are two claims concerning it which I wish to challenge: These are
1. That the scandal concerns essentially trivial subjects and is the product of hysteria; and
2. That because the public is uninterested in the scandal it will fade away.
Both of these myths, which have many takers in the news media, betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the scandal.
This is not a scandal driven by public outrage. Nor, as I have previously said, is the scandal ultimately the result of media exposure all the claims about the importance of the Guardian’s coverage of the scandal notwithstanding. Once all the false commentary and analysis is stripped away the true driver behind the scandal stands revealed as the police investigation launched following the High Court’s decision to grant John Prescott a Judicial Review.
The moment this fact is grasped the dynamic of the scandal becomes clear. The reason we now know about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s telephone and the bribing of police officers is because these facts have been discovered as a result of the new police investigation. The reason the News of the World was closed down is because these facts had come to light as a result of the new police investigation. The reason Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks have been arrested and in the case of Rebekah Brooks forced to resign is because the new police investigation has made them criminal suspects. The reason Cameron has been embarrassed by the scandal is because of his personal links with Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, who the new police investigation has shown are criminal suspects. The reason senior police officers have resigned is because the facts brought to light by the new police investigation have called into question their decision to close down the earlier police investigation.
None of this would be happening if the new police investigation had not produced evidence that serious criminal offences had been committed. Industrial scale hacking of people’s phones and the bribing of police officers are very serious criminal offences especially when, as in this case, they seem to have been done as part of “fishing expeditions” and not as part of a journalistic investigation into a serious story to which the public interest defence might apply.
In addition, as often happens when the corrupt practices of a large organisation are being investigated, the new police investigation has brought a host of other illegal practices to light. Over the last few weeks we have heard allegations of theft, burglary, perjury and obstruction of justice. Only yesterday on Newsnight we learnt that Mark Lewis, the solicitor who represents some of the people whose phones have been hacked, had himself apparently been spied on and hacked. If true (and it has not been denied) this would be interference in the confidential relationship between a lawyer and his clients, which is another serious criminal offence.
All this makes for a complicated and messy story. It is understandable that amidst the welter of claims and allegations the public has lost track of the detail and become bored. Once however it is understood that public outrage and media frenzy are not the motor driving this scandal the fact that the public is bored can be seen to be largely beside the point. Given the inexorable nature of the criminal legal process it ultimately does not matter whether the public are bored or not. The scandal will grind on regardless up to the point when the criminal legal process is finally exhausted. Given the scale of the wrongdoing so far exposed this could take years.
The best parallel is the Watergate scandal in the US in the early 1970s. That too began with the discovery of a serious criminal offence, namely the burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic Party’s Presidential campaign in the Watergate building in Washington. Proper investigation of that crime (and burglary is a very serious crime) was also initially suppressed through use of illicit pressure on the police and the payment of hush money to the burglars. Though the seriousness of what had happened was obvious to a small number of people (notably the two Washington Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward and their editor) the political class and the public initially showed no interest. As with the Murdoch scandal the Watergate scandal finally exploded only when the investigation of the burglary was reactivated after evidence of the suppression of the previous investigation was exposed. As with the Murdoch scandal this brought to light a whole host of other criminal offences that often had no connection to the burglary but which did expose the culture of criminality in the organisation under investigation, namely the White House staff. As with the Murdoch scandal the public quickly became bored with a scandal the details of which it was unable to follow, a fact which induced a false sense of complacency amongst those being investigated and their supporters, which as the criminal investigation ground inexorably on was eventually shown to be misplaced.
The Murdoch scandal is not quite as serious as the Watergate scandal because the person at its centre, Rupert Murdoch, does not occupy the kind of constitutional position held by Richard Nixon, the person at the centre of the Watergate scandal, who was President of the United States. This should not disguise the fact that the current scandal is for Murdoch every bit as dangerous as the Watergate scandal was for Nixon. For one thing the crimes exposed in the course of the two scandals, wire taps, phone hacking, burglaries and conspiracies to obstruct and pervert the course of justice, are exactly the same. The fact that the driver of the scandal is a criminal legal process over which unlike public opinion Murdoch has no control means that the scandal is more dangerous to Murdoch not less.