Another week, another round of revelations about goings on within the News Corp empire, including the latest discovery of recordings of eight messages left by former Home Secretary David Blunkett on the mobile phone of a female friend while he was a serving Cabinet minister. And we are not remotely close to the end of the story yet. Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has been dogged in his pursuit of the phone-hacking scandal and is the acknowledged star of the UK’s Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee has estimated that the unravelling could take “at least three more years”.

But despite the prospect of the scandal dragging on at length, there is no sign of anyone losing interest in the saga.  A combination of celebrity and prurient details, the moral weight of the murder of innocent Milly Dowler, the sheer opera of an ageing vainglorious emperor and his feckless son facing total humiliation, and the enormity of the issues at stake, ensure an enduringly fascinating spectacle.  As much as anything, the controversy is a contest over the nature of global power itself.

It is hard to imagine a much clearer showcasing of some of the tensions associated with globalisation than the appearance of Rupert and James Murdoch before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee  in July. In this era of postmodern late capitalism global elites are characterised by their elusiveness. Power, though still concentrated, is measured and exercised through the evasion of accountability. More than a decade ago eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman dubbed the present condition “liquid modernity”, in contrast to the “solid modernity” of the 20th century.

If power in the age of solid modernity was characterised by heavy, stable, lasting, territorially oriented forms of domination and control, liquid modernity represents a new era in which the powerful exercise their supremacy through their ability to evade, reshape and re-form.  Although Rupert Murdoch is not an unambiguously liquidly modern figure (his genuine attachment to the “old technology” of the geographically grounded newspaper is both infamous and legendary) he is, as Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker, “one of those figures so wealthy, and granted such frictionless mobility by their wealth, that they never seem to be in the part of the world that you expect them to be”.

However, despite the common liquidity of power in the 21st century, vestiges of solid modernity do persist.  Indeed, nothing could be more characteristic of solid modernity than a Parliamentary Committee of elected representatives from geographic constituencies attempting to establish the truth of a matter in the name of accountability.  The hearing, and numerous other associated inquiries and investigations in the UK and elsewhere, are an attempt by national government to hold accountable News Corp, one of the most powerful transnational corporations on earth, within domestic political institutions.  The solid is gamely attempting to confine the fast-moving liquid. Watson’s comments to The Guardian are revealing:

“You look at the pillars of the state: politics, the media, police, lawyers — they’ve all got their formal role, and then nestling above that is that power elite who are networked in through soft, social links, that are actually running the show.”

Ironically, the motives and the analysis of Watson are not dissimilar to those professed by Jonnie Marbles, the activist who disrupted the Parliamentary Committee’s session with the Murdochs.  Justifying his actions, Marbles said:

“If you’re of sound mind, you might quite reasonably ask what possessed me to smuggle a shaving-foam pie into Portcullis House and throw it at (though, alas, not into) the face of one of the world’s richest and most powerful men. I didn’t do it because I wanted more Twitter followers. Simply put, I did it for all the people who couldn’t.”

The particular power of News Corp goes beyond the geographic mobility — and ability to take flight — of transnational capital and the global elites who own it. News Corp’s product is information, making the giant conglomerate a particularly discursive — and discursively influential — form of business actor. What is produced not only brings in profit, but can simultaneously also further business strategy to the extent that the product renders the commercial environment more pliant to News Corp’s interests. The aim is to create conditions that are conducive to even greater media domination by News Corp. Earlier this year, exhibiting the kind of pride that would not be out of place preceding a colossal fall, James Murdoch pronounced the real problem with News Corp as being that it was “not big enough”.

Clearly though, News Corp does not only seek to profit from the manufacture of information in a narrow sense, but to also produce material that instrumentally serves certain political objectives.  Rupert Murdoch is quite prepared to use News Corp as an instrument for achieving his vision of the good society (which, we have learnt — here at Q379 — is Singapore).  The most infamous example is the US-led attack on Iraq in 2003, which was supported by every single one of the editors of the 175 print media titles then owned by News Corp.  In the US, the functioning of corporate business strategy and Murdoch’s normative normative preferences have come together in the relationship between the Republican Party and News Corp, which effectively function as a media-industrial complex.

And it now appears that phone hacking — initially motivated by print deadlines and the imperative for scoops at News of the World — may have also resulted in phones being hacked for other business-strategic purposes.  For example, a fortnight ago Four Corners aired allegations that suggested that NotW reporters may have hacked phones and attempted to intimidate police to dissuade them from undertaking inquiries. Exactly how far NotW reporters may have gone in furtherance of non-story related or political objectives remains to be uncovered.

Although no evidence to this effect has come to light, it is intriguing to wonder whether — in the period when former NotW editor Andy Coulson was employed in the Office of then opposition leader David Cameron but continued to receive payments from News International — he was privy to any political information obtained through phone hacking or other illegal or unorthodox means.  Former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott has bluntly described Coulson in this period as being a “double agent” pure and simple. Coulson — who is already facing criminal charges from his role in the phone-hacking scandal — declined an invitation to provide additional comments, in a written reply, to the evidence he gave to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2009.

The fundamental question of the imbroglio now surrounding the Murdochcracy is whether in a liquidly modern globalised age, “the power elite who are networked in through soft, social links” who are “actually running the show” can be brought to heel by the rest of us, through the good agency of political representatives acting within democratic structures. Let us be optimistic and hope that it is so.

*Portions of this article have previously appeared in David Ritter’s blog, which appears weekly in Global Policy

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey