Thursday, 21 July 2011

Murdoch's Watergate? Cameron's Watergate? A Historian's Perspective

Having been away in London, I've not had time to comment on the incredible #hackgate developments.

It has been an astonishing pace of events that has shook the British media, its police and its politicians to their foundations. Much has been said and is being said about what has happened and the situation is so fluid that we can not tell where this is going to end. So the best that I can do at this juncture is to take a step back and to make some observations on what has already happened from my perspective as a historian.

Modern society overuses the 'gate' suffix at an alarmingly regular rate nowadays and in all reality, none of the modern uses can really match the severity of the original Watgergate moment in history. A pretty comprehensive list can be found here and forasmuch as 'Sharongate' in Eastenders may have had the nation transfixed back in the early 1990s or Nipplegate in which Justin Timberlake revealed Janet Jackson's nipple during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII may have caught the world in awe, do they really deserve comparison with a scandal that ousted an American President? Of course not. But over recent days and weeks, as more information has been released and more people have been implicated in this mire, I get a sense in my historic bones, that something really ia afoot here and what we are watching are the ingrediants for what will be a seismic shift in our cultural politic from what has been over the past four or so decades.

(a) Murdoch's Demise?
The whole point of Watergate was that at its core, there was a rotten political centre which as it transpired, went right up to the very top of America's political chain of command to the Commander-in-Chief in the White House.

James and Rupert Murdoch facing a House of Commons
Select Committee Grilling
Here, the rotten core has been in the ethics and standards of the tabloid journalists primarily in the News of the World but wider than that, throughout the News International empire and indeed, further afield across the spectrum.

It so happens however, that the hideous and disbelieving antics of a number of reporters during the past decade at the very least, were found at News International on the Murdoch's watch. What has transpired since has been a momentus and seemingly never-ending barrage of developments that have further showed this part of the Murdoch Empire to be wrapped up in dirty and dodgy dealings. As a result, the famous and historic News of the World name was allowed to be killed off in an attempt to placate the rising tide of anger and revulsion at what was being disclosed.

But of course, one of the hallmarks of this crisis has been the way in which Rupert and son James Murdoch have been unable to keep up with events and are playing a constant scrambling game of catch-up. For a family that has for so long lived in the public eye and has made its millions by being at the forefront of media campaigns, it is an incredible volte-face that see's them now struggling to deal with the searing light of the world's media attention. They have so badly misunderstood the public mood, their reaction to events has far from calmed the growing current that has turned against them but has in fact exacerbated and made worse that tide.

In only a matter of weeks, everything has changed. Who could seriously have thought just a month ago before the recent Milly Dowler revelations were made public, that a Parliamentary motion calling on Murdoch to drop his bid for the 100% sharehold in BSkyB would be supported unanimously by all parties and that as a result of this rare show of solidarity, Murdoch would indeed drop the bid?

Who could have believed the scenes of watching both Rupert and son James on Tuesday in front of a House of Commons select committee? It was indeed a historic and disbelieving event to witness. Suddenly, here was the media tycoon whose empire has held British politicians from both the Labour and Conservative benches over the past 3 decades in the palm of his hand, being brought back to heel as he faced questions about his company, its ethics and about his role in the events that have seen its share price collapse by some 17%. Murdoch Snr it suddenly became apparent to us, was now this frail old octogenarian who is getting no younger and who is clearly past his prime and not in control of his vast media empire as many may have felt was the case.

It is apparent, that many of his fellow executives at News Corporation are seeking to stregthen their grip on the corporate managment of the company from what seems to have been the lazy gaze of its Chief Executive and his heir apparent. The sudden and dramatic share price collapse of the company will certainly have concentrated minds to this effect. Also rumoured amongst this growing discontent at the Board level is that the company may want to look more seriously at its future in the British press. It is a widely felt view that the ownership of the Times and Sun titles in the UK owes more to Murdoch Snr's pet enthusiasm which emanates from his father's journalistic background and his own earlier years in breaking through in the 1960s than to a financial imperative. For the News International stable of newspapers from a British context at least is only a small part of News Corporation's bigger picture. It may be unlikely but it is not inconceivable that post-Murdoch, these papers might be sold off and what of that? A British tabloid and quality press without the Murdoch fingerprint written all over it after over 40 years at its heart?

Murdoch showed contrition on his appearance in Westminster in Tuesday but then so he might. In a matter of weeks he has seen everything that he has created and everything that he has stood for questioned. Hackgate has made him as vulnerable a target as he has ever been and whilst he may cling on to power or may be moved upstairs to become Chairman of the company, it would seem that these events will hasten the transition from power of this once mighty media mogul. It is now also highly questionable that son James will automatically take over the mantle from his father and if it proves in time that he doesn't, then it will indeed be another humiliating blow to the prestige and power of the Murdoch brand.

Most importantly of all from this perspective is how this on-going episode will alter the relationship between the media and the politicians that run our country. Suddenly, no-one wants to be seen near the toxic Murdoch brand because that's exactly what it has become - toxic. Having a proper and respectful distance and seperation of the media and political worlds in the UK is now likely in the foreseeable future and this in itself, whatever happens to Murdoch and his family, can only be a good thing.

Maybe Vince Cable was right all-along!

(b) David Cameron's Demise?
What then of the political ramifications of these developments?

Disgraced British Prime
Minister David Cameron?
In 1974, it became apparent that the rotten core that had seen US government put under the spotlight was actually orchestrated from the very top. President Nixon was forced to beceome the first and only American President to date in history, to resign his office because of the nature of the deceit and the part that he played in it.

Only last week, it didn't seem as if David Cameron would be badly touched by these events but such has been the speed of the revelations that the bookmakers have slashed the odds of his being the next resignation fron the Cabinet.

The dodgy connection of course is Andy Coulson and whilst the Prime Minister has done his best to robustly defend his position as he did in the House of Commons yesterday, it seems as if the more that is said, the more that is left un-said. It is probably most likely that David Cameron himself is an innocent by-stander in all of this and that his only mistake was one of judgement in which he believed all that Coulson said to him. Coulson may of course be exonerated by the Judicial inquiry and so in connection, will Cameron. But if not, Cameron's judgement will be seriously questioned but of course it does not stop there.

As with Watergate, it all comes down to who knows, what do they know and when did they know it.

Cameron's repeated protestations in the House of Commons yesterday, using the same carefully-phrased legal wording, seemed to cry of Shakespeare's Macbeth: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks".

Disgraced American President Richard Nixon
What did he know of Coulson's relations with the blackened journalists? What indeed did Coulson know himself and did the Prime Minister know the same? What indeed did the PM say to the Murdoch's and Rebekah Brooks during his many meetings with them regarding the possible BSkyB takeover?

Suddenly, every word uttered by the Prime Minister takes on a much greater significance. There are many imponderables and if Cameron honestly is free from all legitimate accusations, then he will be fine. But, if like Nixon, there is a discussion along the way or a knowledge of events that can implicate him in the wider furore, then it could well be as seriously damaging and far-reaching as that American political crisis of 4 decades ago.

All it needs is for one whistleblower or for one errant remark to me made that blows yet more out of this hideous can of worms.

In the meantime, the 24 media coverege that seems to be dedicated to the sensational new twists and turns that unleash yet more interest in this story, can far too easily forget the other great stories of this time. The fragility of the Euro-zone and its impact on us and the starvation of millions in Somalia are just two stories that spring to mind that are being clouded from view by hackgate.

But for all the words and all of the analysis, as is ever the case with such things, it is only time that will tell whether hackgate does indeed have the long-term repercussions on our society as the original 'gate' did on its American counterpart, back in the 1970s.

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