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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.