For Murdoch and friends, sorry is the easiest word

For Rupert, Rebekah and David, contrition has finally arrived. But where's the shame?

Rupert Murdoch is very sorry. He's very sorry that he didn't know anything about what went on at his newspapers, which was wrong but not the fault of the people in charge of those newspapers, and he's very sorry that those people who were in charge, but didn't know anything about the wrong things that were happening, have now had to resign.

Rebekah Brooks is sorry. She's sorry that although she was in charge of newspapers for which despicable acts took place, she knew nothing about it, having been on holiday when many of these incidents took place, and not having known about it otherwise. She's sorry that she said that her organisation had paid police, when what she meant to say was that her organisation had not paid police. These things happen, when you're in a high pressure situation. You can end up saying things you didn't mean to say.

David Cameron is sorry. He's sorry that he gave someone a second chance. He's sorry that the second chance, which he gave someone, by giving them a second chance, didn't work out as well as he might have hoped. No-one warned him that by giving this someone a second chance, it might not be the best outcome in the history of the world, although some people say they did warn him, and that he must have either not even read those warnings, or not listened to them, or proceeded anyway.

Everyone's sorry. Everyone is sorry that what happened happened, and that even though they were in the kind of positions where you might expect them to know about what happened, they didn't know about what happened. No-one knew anything, and were quite right to dismiss all the investigative work on the phone hacking story as boring lefty troublemakers doing some yawnworthy tedium, until the tale about the hacking of a dead teenager's phone came out - at which point it actually mattered.

It mattered because the story went beyond the BBC, or the Guardian, or the usual suspects - it went everywhere, and wasn't going to go away. It wasn't just being read about by the kind of people who'd never buy your papers; it was being read about by exactly the kind of people who do buy your papers, and are disgusted with you for having run the kind of paper where this kind of thing happened. Then it mattered a lot.

Then, everyone who is now sorry was as shocked as everyone else. Imagine the shock. The surprise. Imagine not having known about anything, all that time. Imagine employing someone - giving them a second chance, if you want to use that phrase - who was rumoured to be involved in some dodgy dealing, and not having sat them down and forced them to tell you exactly what they knew and didn't know. Imagine that.

Would you feel sorry, or would there be another feeling running through you? Not sorry, but something else... shame. Shame that you should have known, but didn't know. Shame that you didn't ask the right questions of the right people. Shame that you didn't know where any of this information came from, and just paid people for it anyway. Shame that you were in charge, yet weren't in charge. Shame that you took the absolutely enormous salary, yet didn't know what you were doing, apparently.

Everyone's sorry, and everyone involved in this grubby mess hopes that a simple sorry will make everything all right again. Just a simple sorry, and hope that the fuss dies down, and then up pops the Sun on Sunday on August 7, or thereabouts, and it's the football season and there'll be a massive preview and free gifts and other lovely things for you to look at, and everyone will just shrug their shoulders and think, oh well, I suppose we'd better give them a second chance, hadn't we? It's important to give people second chances. And that will be that. Crisis averted. Ed Miliband foiled. Everything carries on, much as it did before.

Unless people aren't prepared to tolerate being fooled again. And unless people aren't prepared to think that a simple sorry will get Murdoch and friends out of this sorry mess.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change