Where do we go from here? The events of the past week have left many of us reeling, and it seems there is more to come. Every time I sit down to write something about the unfolding disaster for the Murdoch empire, there’s a new development. The news is moving faster than ever before, it would seem, and the old rules of engagement have been cast aside: now the papers are openly taking shots at each other.
Time was you could rely on what Henry Kissinger might have called an “uneasy peace” in Fleet Street. We knew they all hated each other, and wanted to bring each other down, but they didn’t declare open warfare. Now that’s changed: the Mirror has piled on to the giant playground bundle on Rupert Murdoch and decided now is the time to make capital out of their rivals’ misfortune (or misdeeds, whichever way you want to look at it). You can see the attraction, although I rather fear it will be the Daily Mail, as ever, which quietly goes about picking up the biggest share of disaffected Sun readers and former News of the World readers. It doesn’t need to go for the jugular — it just sits back and picks up the scraps.
It’s a strange, bewildering scene, this News of the World-free Britain, a place where allegation and counter-allegation get fired out in rapid succession. When the biggest selling newspaper can disappear in the course of a week, it seems everything is built on sand, including the sureness of our Prime Minister’s long-term future. The once automaton-smooth David Cameron has looked agitated, out of his depth, uneasy and uncertain when answering tough questions from the kind of journalists who don’t do dirty digging. He even ended up repeating the same phrases over and over again (“second chance” re: Andy Coulson) in exactly the same way that made his counterpart Ed Miliband a laughing stock only a few days before. And then there is Miliband, a Dalek-like milquetoast one minute and a ferocious performer the next, seizing his opportunity to be more than a punctuation mark in Labour’s history. What’s going on?
Peering on from the sidelines, one feels like Harry Carpenter incredulously screaming “He’s hurt Tyson!” as the massive underdog Frank Bruno landed a quality shot on the world heavyweight champion back in 1989. We all knew it wouldn’t last, and Bruno was going to be splattered into a meaty pulp at some point during the evening, but there, just for a moment, the certainties were shaken to the core. Surely it will all be all right in the end for Rupert Murdoch; surely this is just a blip in his otherwise glittering career. “Say what you like about Murdoch, but he always gets it right.” That was the received wisdom before this past crazy fortnight — something we could all rely on, whatever happened. And surely that won’t change. It can’t change. Can it?
Perhaps it can. Maybe Murdoch’s aura — if it ever really existed — is beginning to fade. For now, acts of desperation can be top-spun into shrewd little deals. Optimistic statements that everything is going to be all right can be portrayed as promises, rather than aspirations. But with every passing day, every passing moment of uncertainty and turmoil, every new revelation eagerly unearthed and devoured, you have to call into question how much longer this can last without it becoming real trouble. It was tempting to see the daft old billionaire grinning away with Rebekah Brooks in the street the other day and recall the outraged Sun headline “CRISIS — WHAT CRISIS?” Which presaged the decline of “Sunny Jim” Callaghan. But maybe not. Maybe Murdoch will get out of this, like he’s got out of fixes before.
We shouldn’t underestimate him, of course. He’s not that dumb; far from it. But maybe even he isn’t smart enough to solve this one.