With each passing week of the Leveson inquiry we learn ever more about the banal intimacies that characterise the elite political and media circles at the heart of power in Britain.
Tony Blair endured a marathon grilling overnight, and last Friday new information emerged concerning the web of influence around the role of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt in relation to News Corporation’s abortive bid for BSkyB. The most titillating information was a bunch of texts and emails seeming to show an almost lascivious closeness between some elements of the Coalition government and News Corp.
It would be wrong, though, to simply understand what we are learning from Leveson and the rest of the Murdoch-related inquiries in Britain as being no more than a particularly egregious form of vested interest insiderism.
I’ve observed elsewhere in Crikey that 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. The functioning of corporate business strategy and ideology are brought together in a single media-industrial complex. But what has now emerged — perhaps most clearly in the Leveson testimony of Rebekah Brooks — is the extent to which some News Corp elites felt justified in what they were doing by reference to an abstract higher power.
According to Brooks, the ex-editor of The Sun and the News of the World, the authority that flowed through her was derived above all from “the readership”:
“[y]our power is your readership. It’s not an individual power. You know, it’s a readership power and I think that’s really important … I think at The Sun, the readers are the most powerful. It is their voice that we try and reflect, their injustices, their concerns that we try and tackle, their interests we try and engage in.”
Clearly puzzled, Lord Leveson asked Brooks “if you have millions of readers, how are you identifying their views?” Like any good demagogue, Brooks answered that she was not the master of the people but a mere conduit of their intentions, able to divine the will of “the readership” through both “instinct” and “close interaction”:
“I mean, for the last 11 years, every year I go on holiday on a £9.50 caravan park with Sun readers. I take all my executive team. We go through their emails. The post room at the Sun is sort of legendary. It’s now an email room, or inbox, but the letters that we get through them are always looked at. There’s a great sort of culture at the Sun newsroom that the reader is always to be respected. I mean, it’s almost a sackable offence to be rude to a reader. We get readers ringing us up asking for directions if they’re lost somewhere.”
Putting to one side both the bizarre mental image of Brooks condescending to enter a caravan park, and that of a punter calling the Sun for advice after leaving the wrong exit of the Basingstoke roundabout, if we are to take the testimony of the former News International chief executive on face value, the will of “the readership” seems to have provided a kind of sacred justification for the activities of the papers. Legitimated by their iteration of the will of the people, Brooks and her ilk felt at liberty to act as they pleased.
So, for example, on the question of publishing in the News of the World the names and photographs of known s-x offenders, which led to several acts of vigilantism (in one instance in 2000 vandals apparently mistook a paediatrician for a p-edophile on the basis of the phonetic similarity of the two terms), Brooks feels vindicated on the basis that “98 per cent of the British public continue to agree with the campaign probably up until this day”.
It is, said the woman once fawned over by prime ministers apparently without any shred of irony (LOL!), “the ordinary people’s views that make a newspaper powerful”. Brooks’ testimony disclosed a dangerous embrace of the tyranny of the majority, in which the positioning of News Corp papers — pro law and order to the point of proto-vigilantism, explicitly pro military, and pro neo-liberal restructuring of the economy — was justified by reference to the “general will” manifest in the abstract guise of the paper’s readership.
One Paper. One Readership. One Will. Many reasons to be concerned.