Leveson, challenge to power or enormous release valve?
The Prime Minister is being questioned under oath about his relationship to the largest media company in the land, about what was promised in the lead-up to the 2010 election, and no one gives a rat's.
God, oh god, by nine at Bar Italia, they had already switched from Italian cable news — which as far as I can tell is read exclusively by trannies in Tootsie wigs and horn-rims — to Sky, which was following the motorcade of Prime Minister David Cameron from Downing Street up Westminster to the Royal Courts of Justice for his appearance at the Leveson inquiry.
It’s a tradition, these helicopter shots of a car going 1.5 kilometres or so, commentators trying desperately to fill, a habit taken from endless sycophantic coverage of royal processions and given the excitement of a pseudo OJ Simpson chase. For once it’s appropriate, to the subject matter, for the Leveson inquiry is now neither a source of instruction nor of anger, but simply one of sheer anxiety, enervation without an object.
It’s the 2012 European Cup fortnight at the moment, with TVs on in every cafe and pub in Soho. Through the morning, people drifted in to see if the game had started, saw that it was Leveson, and drifted out. Which is kinda incredible. The Prime Minister of the country is being questioned under oath about his relationship to the largest media company in the land, about what was promised in the lead-up to the 2010 election, and no one gives a rat’s — not even in the vague hope that he might screw up and admit to a lewd encounter with Rupert by the banks of the Danube, or something.
But it’s an effect of the weird powerlessness of the process. By now from sundry witnesses, we know one big thing — that there was a total and explicit process by which News International and the Conservative Party danced around each other before the election, around the issue as to whether The Sun would switch its support from Labour to the Tories — and then danced again when News wanted to take a majority share in Sky broadcasting, and thus control British cable news broadcasting.
From the evidence of PM Cameron today, we know that the communication between News’ Rebekah Brooks and Cameron was more than complicit — it was downright icky. Brooks texted David Cameron on the eve of his 2009 speech to the Tory Party conference (his make-or-break pitch of post-Thatcherite Toryism) “professionally we’re definitely in this together … Yes he Cam!” and while it was noted that it was Brooks texting Cameron, not vice versa, it was the most memorable moment of the Prime Minister’s appearance.
Cameron also revealed that he had met Brooks 19 times, James Murdoch 15 times and ole Rupert 10 times — and that was when he was in opposition. But we had to wade through a lot of flannel to get these nuggets and yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor that doesn’t even make sense.
Meandering discussions of general structure of relations between press and politicians, Cameron’s random views on the changes in balance between news and opinion, cute little jokes about leaving his eight-year-old child in the pub — a story about an incident that occurred two months ago, and suspiciously is appearing only now — fleshed it all out. Cameron was pretty fleshed out himself, puffier than usual, which takes some doing, his complexion that of a boiled ham.
Loquacious on general matters, he was cagey and hesitant on specific memories — well, look, he’s the man who left his kid at a pub, only human, cant be expected, etc — including meetings with the Murdochs on the Greek island of Santorini, who first introduced him to Brooks, how many times he met, etc. Memory lapses occurred between 19 and 22 times, according to various counts, but by the end of his evidence there was no smoking pistol, no emailed promise of action on BSkyB, etc. Post-hoc various commentators thought that the full text of the text from Brooks would do him damage, and here it is:
“But seriously I do understand the issue with the Times. Let’s discuss over country supper soon. On the party it was because I had asked a number of NI people to Manchester post endorsement and they were disappointed not to see you. But as always Sam was wonderful (and I thought it was OE’s were charm personified!) I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam …”
For OEs, read Old Etonians. Gush gush gush. Still we’ve all had the odd country supper to talk about the editorial position of the country’s largest broadsheet. Left-liberal commentators such as the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland thought that the revelation of this rarefied Cotswalds lifestyle lived by Brooks, Cameron, et al, would be damaging to Cameron among the public.
I think he’s living in cloud cuckoo land. For a start, the Leveson inquiry as a whole is tanking in viewing figures, website hits, etc. People would rather talk about anything else than Leveson in particular — and the fact that the powerful live an elite Aga saga life is of zero interest to the vast majority of voters, especially swing voters in the UK. This is a mistake that the Left, and also sections of the Right, keep making — they imagine that the revelation of secret networks of power is news to the toiling and exhausted middle-class masses of Britain.
There’s several reasons that’s not the case. The majority of middle-class swinging voters live a life whose textures and rhythms are so alien to the pseudo-aristocratic lifestyle of the Camerons, etc, that in many ways envy or anger is not really operative. Middle-class life is lived among chain stores and brands, American TV on cable, the suburb and the mall, a smooth and mass-produced, if increasingly precarious, comfort. With social mobility moving towards virtually zero, British people have become increasingly focused on the micro-worlds of their class life.
The acceptance that an elite will run the joint is therefore near total. Ed Miliband was on at Leveson this week, calling for the break of News International. But he looks and sounds sufficiently like Cameron — Notting Hill for Dave, Ed’s from Hampstead — that the notion that a “country supper” and loose chat about Eton distinguishes one part of the elite from the other is laughable. Currently, in the UK, hope for real structural change, for a society of genuine opportunity or some measure of equality, is at zero, or less than.
Nothing is wanted at the moment, than a government that can get the country out of its sluggish and now near continual five-year recession, and into real GDP growth. People don’t even want a boom, or any promises about a golden age — they just want to avoid the fate of southern Europe. The effect of such an instrumental politics is to render a wider circle of questions instrumental.
Thus, many people would be happy to hear of collusion between a political party and a major media organisation — so long as it generated “success”. What breaks through is events that occurred in people’s lifeworlds — such as the Milly Dowler phone hacking. That stuff was featuring in the Leveson inquiry — it is hard to believe — eight months ago, when celebs and celeb victims were lining up to appear. What has appeared since then — the political elite of the UK, the people who run the joint — has been the aftercard, the ratings dwindling. It raises the question of whether Leveson is a challenge to power, or an enormous release valve.
For while it can consider how media proprietors influence and are influenced, and a structure for regulatory oversight, it can’t consider the very notion that ownership and control of the major organs of communication in a society is a vital question for something approaching genuine democracy. By late afternoon, Leveson was over and people were drifting back into the bars as the Italy-Croatia match began. Sport, the anti-politics, the fantasy of control by proxy, has become the obsessive antidote to the abstract systems that run people’s lives. But as the man asked, what would it take for people to feel something of that mastery and expertise, in the areas, probed all too gingerly by the Leveson inquiry, where the decisions about how they live will be made?
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.