The phone-hacking crisis calls for Ed Miliband to prove his dad wrong

Ralph Miliband argued that the capitalist society and state protect each other. His son must work to

Most students of sociology or politics come across the work of Ralph Miliband. His basic theory is simple: a capitalist society has a capitalist state at its beck and call. They are tied together by a "ruling class". Nobody needs to pick up the metaphorical phone -- they think the same way so they act to protect each other's interests. When people get restless, the odd concession is granted: a welfare state or free education. By and large though, the capitalists have it their own way.

A few days in to the mega and all-consuming scandal that has resulted from the News of the World's phone-hacking and News International's ability to evade any real consequences for a number of years, who is to say that Ralph Miliband wasn't right?

What has occurred is the projection -- directly and culturally -- of concentrated power that has perverted the course of justice and democracy. Just as was the case in the Watergate scandal (an over-used comparator yet seemingly apt in this case) it is not the original crime that is most revealing. It is subsequent events that tell us the most about the power of News International: police languor; political pusillanimity, and corporate cover-up.

It is very easy to see how News International and their parent, News Corporation, have been able to get the British state to do their bidding. In the year to June 2010, News International made a £73.3million annual loss. The Sun and News of the World are profitable; the Times and Sunday Times make a loss. By contrast, BSkyB's latest profits were £467million and they are shooting upwards. The two sides of Rupert Murdoch's UK business serve different functions. The newspaper side is about projection of power, while the TV side is about commercial gain. The two are closely linked.

The basic issue is one of concentration of power. Many people have alluded to this in the last few days, including Ralph Miliband's son Ed, but almost none have followed through on the consequences of that understanding. How does the News International/News Corporation power work? The newspapers provide the political leverage because voters read them, and politicians care what they write as a consequence. That leverage acts as a commercial lever to prevent strong action of politicians against the commercial interests of News Corporation. This is not corruption necessarily. It is simply how Ralph Miliband would describe the state operating in a capitalist society.

Of course, in this case, the phone is not metaphorical. It's a hotline. Politicians and News International executives have family get togethers over Christmas, fly across the world to show affectation and loyalty, employ former editors as Directors of Communication -- even discredited ones that other newspaper editors warn them against -- and fawn over leading players in the company at summer parties and the like. This is not an invisible projection of power. It's obvious, visible, and blatant. It is swaggering and self-confident collusion. It shows just how much power one media group has been able to accumulate.

Fortunately, and thanks to the work of tenacious investigative journalists and a handful of determined Labour backbenchers, the game is up. Public revulsion has called a stop to the party. Even now, there is a failure of collective media and political understanding about what this moment represents. In the latest News Corporation annual report,Moody's and S&P rated the company's outlook as "stable". What this normally means, as we have discovered, is hold on to your hats.

The initial outrage has put a block on the full takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation. The pathetically weak Press Complaints Commission has, rightly, been thrown to the wolves. The take-over postponement, which will surely inevitably mean the end of the bid, merely prevents further concentration of the media empire. And if the result of a new regulatory system is to obstruct sound investigative journalism, then that's a disaster. At worst, we could end up with a media empire whose power is undimmed, with good journalism hampered through over-reaction.

Instead, it is incumbent upon parliament to prove that democracy can properly regulate capitalism. News International/News Corporation's concentrated ownership must surely be broken up. While it was not this concentrated power that led to phone-hacking, its reality explains much of what has happened since. Newspaper ownership should be further limited. Cross-media ownership should be further restricted. Carriage of media (eg. satellite) should be separated from content provision (eg. Premiership football). This is what is required for a genuinely plural, open, creative, and diverse media where no player is so powerful that they can enjoy undue market power, and get the state to do its bidding.

So far the response to this scandal has been weak pretty much across the board. People are still afraid of confronting News Corporation and News International, such is their culturally embedded power. But this is not personal. It's not about Rupert Murdoch or any of his friends and relatives; it's about concentrations of power. It should apply equally to financial services, utility companies -- here's looking at you, British Gas -- and anywhere where power holds sway over the marketplace and politics.

Ralph Miliband spotted the dangers of corporate power subjugating the state. We have to hope he was wrong about its inevitability. In fact, let's prove that he was wrong. If there is one person who stands at the edge of this Rubicon it's Ed Miliband. After this morning's press conference, there is little doubt that he is now setting the political pace of this issue. He's found his voice, and it's a determined one. His challenge is now to use his voice wisely -- to break up a concentration of over-weaning media power.

Perhaps it is down to the son to heed to warnings of the father but prove his fatalism wrong. Democracies can act to defend the public interest. But they need men and women of courage and self-belief to do so. Ed Miliband is beginning to show he may be in possession of the courage required.

Anthony Painter is a political writer, commentator and researcher. His new book Left Without A Future? is published by Arcadia Books in November.

Photo: André Spicer
Show Hide image

“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.