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Laurie Penny on why the momentum of the Murdoch backlash must not slow

The Murdoch red-tops are not moral arbiters, they are brutal mercenary machines.

For years, the Murdoch press has manipulated a particular type of moral outrage in order to peddle its propaganda of war and hate. Now, with the scandal of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose phone was reportedly hacked by a detective employed by News of the World, that very same moral outrage has been turned back against News International. It's like an attack-dog finally turning around to savage its abusive master.

It has become clear to the public that the Murdoch red-tops are not moral arbiters. Rather, they are brutal mercenary machines.

They have been permitted to continue these practices by a toothless and impotent Press Complaints Commission which is itself coming under scrutiny as more and more abuses are uncovered. What is startling about the avalanche of other 'revelations' that have followed the Milly Dowler affair is that most of them have been public knowledge for some time.

It was widely acknowledged that the News of the World paid the police handsomely for information; it was known that News International has for some time enjoyed a close working relationship with the Metropolitan police, a relationship that began thirty years ago in Wapping, when News International crushed the print unions with the co-operation of Mrs Thatcher and the Met.

It was also well known, to the point of being dinner-table conversation, that the Murdoch empire has had at least five successive British governments in a headlock, and that Rupert Murdoch and his son wield colossal unelected power in this country, as well as in Australia and the United States.

David Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, has been convinced that the office of Prime Minister is in the gift of the Murdoch empire. This is no longer entirely true - the Conservatives increased their share of the vote by less than 4 per cent and failed to win a majority at the last General Election despite a thundering campaign across News International. But the idea of the Murdochs as kingmakers is tenacious. Yesterday, during a seat-clutchingly irreverent episode of Question Time, it was former Sun journalist Jon Gaunt who put his finger firmly on what everyone knows and few have dared to say, as he described a Murdoch summer party three years ago:

All of what you might call the great and the good were there. All of the Labour cabinet were there, all of the shadow cabinet, it was like being in the court of the Sun King - if you get the joke - and these people do control the country...What we need in this country is a separate judiciary, we need an independent police force...and we need the press and the politicians to be separate as well.

It is not without reason that News International and its sister companies have come to be known as the Murdoch "Empire". Rupert Murdoch is an oligarch in the classic understanding of the term; his extraordinary influence extends across continents, and governments across the world clamour to bring him tribute in the form of lucrative business deals and favours. In the UK, despite the current scandals, the public still have no assurance that the remaining 60 per cent of BSkyB that Murdoch does not currently own will not be handed to him.

What is truly terrifying is how little the strategic amputation of the News of the World, one of the most widely-read English language papers on the planet with a 168-year history, seems likely to damage News International. It is not inconceivable that that this imperial spell will only be broken when the ageing oligarch finally goes to meet his gods.

Right now, the backlash has begun, and it is about far more than Milly Dowler. Her face, plastered all over the tabloids yet again, has given the rest of the press and a few brave politicians enough moral backbone to stand up and speak truth to power, which is precisely what they have allowed themselves to be bullied out of doing for 30 long years.

We have been shown incontrovertible proof, in Shirley Williams' words, of "how corrupt it all is". However the momentous the closure of the News of the World may seem, we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with it, nor even with a drawn-out public enquiry. The momentum of this backlash must be maintained, and we must demand, at very least, that the BSkyB deal be thrown out.

These oligarchs need, for once in thirty years, to be told "no". They need to understand that the public are not mindless consuming animals who can be manipulated into buying their products and electing their politicians. They need to understand that people, on the contrary, are complex, and decent, and can only be pushed so far.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.