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8 July 2011

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.

By Laurie Penny

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.

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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.