Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The transparency of a scandal
La Stampa - July 20th 2011

British scandals, it should now be abundantly clear, work quite differently from Italian ones. In Italy, scandals start with a seemingly huge revelation and huge amounts of attention, but then get steadily smaller and the attention fades away. In Britain it is the opposite: our scandals start small and emerge slowly, but then get bigger and bigger and bigger. With the now vast scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and the London police, we still cannot tell how much bigger the scandal is going to become.

            What is clear is what Rupert Murdoch, the 80-year-old architect and driving force behind the world’s largest media conglomerate, interrupted his son James’s testimony to the Parliamentary select committee yesterday to say: that “this is the most humble day of my life”. We cannot judge how sincere he was being when he said that. But we can tell that he, his family and his company have suffered both a big humiliation and a crushing blow to their political power. It is very likely that the scandal will do real and lasting commercial damage too.

            News Corporation has already had to close its most profitable British newspaper, the News of the World, and to abandon its bid to buy the two-thirds of British Sky Broadcasting that it does not own. Its remaining British newspapers—the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times—look vulnerable to losses of advertisers and of key executive and editorial staff. And there is a risk, so far small, that investigations will now spread to News Corporation’s American operations too.

            In the long term, and in the wider national interest, the troubles of Rupert Murdoch and his company are not the most important issues in this scandal. The most important issues concern the allegations about bribery of the police by journalists, the regulatory structure for the media in Britain, and the relationship between politicians and the media. Yet even so, the spectacle of seeing one of the most powerful media moguls in the world being questioned in Parliament about the scandal was extremely gripping. It will be remembered for a very long time.

            What was most memorable, for this viewer, was the clear sense of how ignorant Mr Murdoch appeared to be, or claimed to be, about how his British newspapers were operating, of legal cases involving those companies, and even of the management structures supposedly running those newspapers.

            The image given was of a man out of touch with a media empire that had grown too large and too complex to be run by a single family. That image was reinforced by the frequent silences that occurred when Rupert Murdoch was asked a question, often followed by the simple word “no”. It was as if this once great and powerful businessman was struggling to understand the question let alone find an answer. Of course, his lawyers will have advised him to be very careful and succinct with his answers, but the impression given was still more than just one of cautiousness.

            In Britain, the feeling now clearly is that Rupert Murdoch is yesterday’s man: that neither he nor his family will again be powerful or influential in the media or in politics. That cannot be said of the United States, where the Fox TV and film businesses and the Wall Street Journal will still give him huge commercial power and some political sway. But in Britain we are entering a new era.

            What we don’t know yet is how new or different that era will be. The reason we don’t know is that new elements in the scandal are emerging every day: this week alone, apart from the Murdochs’ testimony, the big developments have included the resignations of two of Britain’s most senior policemen, and the death of a journalist who had been widely quoted making allegations about illegal conduct by his former employer, the News of the World, and by his former editor, Andy Coulson, later the communications director for our Prime Minister, David Cameron. And alongside a police investigation, two independent public inquiries have been set up to report on the media’s behaviour and into the behaviour of the police.

            It remains conceivable that this scandal could seriously damage David Cameron; some members of his party have even begun talking openly of the possibility that he might have to resign. That looks unlikely, on present evidence. His judgment in hiring Mr Coulson despite his background as an editor of a newspaper accused of illegal activities, was clearly bad, especially his judgment in retaining Mr Coulson’s services for so long. Yet that so far shows him to have been cynical rather than corrupt or evil in any way, and there is nothing new about cynicism in politicians. For him to resign would require there to be new revelations about him having known more than he has so far admitted about Mr Coulson’s involvement in illegal acts, or revelations of some other misconduct.

            The most important development really concerns the police. This is important in an immediate sense: the fact that two senior officers have resigned means that those men personally, and many of their colleagues, may now have a motive for leaking new information or evidence that could damage News Corporation, other newspapers or even Mr Cameron and other politicians. But it is also important in a more profound sense: the police are under investigation, as an institution, both for failing to enforce the law properly on phone interception, and for allegedly receiving payments from journalists and private detectives for information, which is also illegal.

            Those investigations are shocking, but not entirely new. Britain has had previous scandals and investigations about police corruption. Those previous scandals involved bribes by criminal gangs. The shock of these allegations is the idea that the police may have sold private information about ordinary people, people who they are supposed to be protecting.

            Eventually, this scandal will fade and the wounds it has produced will heal. A strong point about Britain is that it has vigorous anti-bodies in its democracy, strong counter-forces that do eventually clean up infections and abuses of power. We just do not yet know when this will happen, nor quite how big the scandal will become.

            But just in case we journalists get too excited about it, we should note an opinion poll that was published yesterday in the Guardian newspaper: it suggested that despite the scandal, the Conservative Party has regained the lead over Labour, and its coalition partner the Liberal Democrats has regained popularity too. Just possibly, the British public cares less about this scandal than we in the media do.



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