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.