It was a pretty good Tuesday in London for that most ancient of Olympic sports — schadenfreude. The day had barely begun — OK, it was half-eleven, my day had barely begun — when the news came buzzing along the wires that the UK plod was charging eight former News International journalists and assorted hangers on with crimes related to phone hacking, most particularly the hacking of the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are the most high-profile of those charged. Both the former UK News Group head and editor of News of the World during its hacking years have already been charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice, with regard to the alleged disposal of evidence of phone hacking. These new charges are the first to touch on the hacking directly.
The official charge is “conspiring to intercept communications without lawful authority”, for a period covering from October 2000 to August 2006, and taking in almost 600 people, from high-profile celebs such as Angelina Jolie and Paul McCartney to politicians such as then deputy PM John Prescott, and crime victims such as 7/7 bombing victim John Tulloch, the Dowler family and others.
The charges are a series of interlocking ones, with different indictees accused of different hacking escapades — Brooks and Coulson are particularly charged with the Dowler hacking, among others –and there is also a range of conspiracy charges, to establish that they were not acting alone.
Other former News employees charged include: Stuart Kuttner (former NotW managing editor), Ian Edmondson and Greg Miskiw (ex-news editors), Neville Thurlbeck (recipient of the infamous “For Neville” email, which established general knowledge of hacking within News International), and Glenn Mulcaire, the “private detective” who performed the phone hacking.
Brooks and Coulson issued statements saying they were extremely disappointed at the decision, there was no evidence they had performed phone hacking, etc, no evidence of conspiracy and will defend themselves to the hilt. Sadly there was no staccato Twitter poetry from Rupert Murdoch offering them his full support and the full legal resources of News Limited.
For Brooks and Coulson, the extra charges are a nightmare, as they will be entangled with the perversion-of-justice charges. Coulson faces three trials — the third for perjury in the Tommy Sheridan case, where the Scottish socialist was himself being sued for perjury following a libel action against News of the World.
Indeed, Coulson faces the prospect of consecutive jail terms, first in England, and then in Scotland on the perjury case. If convicted on all three, he might not see much change out of 10 years.
For Brooks and the others, conviction may not be their only worry. Legal fees are likely to bankrupt them all, and legal aid will only kick in once they have depleted their resources. The less senior journalists and editors will be ruined by this, and the years of stress, financial drainage and guilt will destroy not only their lives, but those around them — the innocent and the guilty alike are crushed when the state, like a juggernaut, a square stone resting on round stones, starts to roll. The hacking scandal has already racked up one suicide — Sean Hoare, the showbiz reporter, who drank himself to death rather than facing years of inquiries.
There will be many others. There the schadenfreude stops. Because, when it comes down to it, the people who became the managerial substratum of News Group International UK were not necessarily malign when they came in. They were just fatally, fatally weak — kids with a lot of energy and a gift for a 60-word article who couldn’t believe what they had got themselves into. Newspaper journalism elsewhere has become a dull duty — rewriting press releases from pharmaceutical companies as news, recapping MasterChef, or subbing Sam Brett — at which point most sensible people take a package and get a Brumby’s franchise in Warragul.
The UK is different. Every morning in this small island, 12 million of the 45 million adults buy a newspaper, and 20 million read one. That includes 10 million of the people everyone else has given up on — the literate working class, and the engaged lower middle class. Tomorrow 8 million people will read The Daily Mail, a paper that despite its reactionary heft, makes such demands on the basic literacy of the reader that it would be literally incomprehensible to two-thirds of the adult UK population.
There’s another element to that — and that’s class. There is no cadetship system in the UK to speak of — so it’s who you know, with a Cambridge education a good start if you’re after the broadsheets. To get in the tabloids you do your GCSEs (year 11, kinda) start doing court reporting for the Bolsover Evening Argus, get to the Scotsman and then down to London. Suddenly you’re in an environment that is nothing other than pure amphetamine 24/7 — while the broadsheets drawl out their commentary, the tabloids take the city by the throat.
This is not merely a matter of right-wing beat-ups — take a look at the Daily Mirror some time, a populist left red-top where writers such as John Pilger made their name, and that still publishes incisive but unpretentious writers such as Kevin McGuire, if you want to see what an exciting newspaper can be.
But for every McGuire or Pilger, there is a Brooks and a Coulson. Take a look at the most famous picture of Coulson, listening to his post-Murdoch “boss” Dave Cameron, sallow and flappy, sucking on the end of a Biro. This is a puppet-man, animated by the energy of his boss, and so grateful for it, that he has, innocent or guilty, f-cked up the whole middle of his life for it. Take a look at the life of Brooks, nee Wade, the ravenously ambitious secretary who rises to the top to become — what? The Cotswold confidante of the Prime Minister, riding a borrowed police horse around the low hills of Chipping Norton.
The life Rebekah Brooks and others chose has nothing to do with real ambition or desire — endless boring country suppers with a Tory set who despise them. It is the ritual enactment of a Joanna Trollope novel, an Aga saga for the declasse lumpen petit bourgeois who grew up in comprehensive post-Attlee, post-Wilson Britain, where everywhere looks the same, and how you handle a vowel determines your life, unless you get on a — tabloid, showbiz, political, sexual — rocket to the big time. Jesus, even Brooksy’s name is a Moe misspelling. The Charleses and Jennifers must laugh behind their hands at that orthographic horse accident.
So, yeah, no real schadenfreude — not least because these people became plighted to a man who many Australians had long ago probably judged as a fraud and a fool. No matter how many courtiers will come to kneel at the feet of King Rupert, we will always know him as the astute but inveterately second-rate son of Keith. His passage from Adelaide via the Sydney back rooms of The Nation, to that left-liberal progressive nation-building paper The Australian, of the 1960s and ’70s, to the union-owned paper The Sun on Fleet Street and beyond. He is a master deal builder — and his apparently mildly-Aspergerish skill at that explains the appalling obviousness of his thoughts, now revealed in their mundane anti-glory in his weird staccato Twitter haiku.
He is and has always been, the merchant prince of the obvious thought, left-liberal in his youth, a spry Thatcherite in his middle-age, and now a pseudo-religious conservative, supporting Rick Santorum, in his perhaps forty-year dotage. His passion throughout his life seems to have been not gratitude, but envy — envy of his war correspondent up-from-nothing Dad, of his essayist, nation-defining uncle, of his patrician Geelong Grammar headmaster James Darling, of his astute, and still extant, Oxford tutor Asa (Lord) Briggs. Sent to Oxford, he took a bust of Lenin. Briggs tried to talk him out of his infantile disorder, and point out the harvest of British gradualism — that over a century, the cradle of capitalism had created a society in which almost everyone had a life worth living, a world historical achievement.
He rejected that then, in the name of Lenin; he would reject it later in the name of Thatcher, Lenin’s mirror. He gets absurd plaudits for saving newspapers — but no newspaper in the UK has collapsed since the great shakeout in the mid-1960s (save for start-ups), when he acquired The Sun. There are as many UK dailies now as there were in 1910, something that the Fairfax board might like to think about.
Whatever he did may have helped individual papers, but it was not essential to the industry as a whole. What he did at Wapping was produced by the conservative intransigence and corruption of the print union leadership, who could have negotiated an industry transition, but allowed him his moment. What he did culturally, was to create a space and a style that would foster — like a yeast — the Coulsons and Brookeses, not the Pilgers and McGuires. Murdoch put envy at the centre of his empire — envy of the smart, of the principled — and he enthroned those who like him, lived off that envy, and made it their life energy.
The various wings of his empire may try to dissociate themselves, but it is ever thus from The New York Post to The Daily Telegraph, Sydney. There are many good people who have worked for News Limited, and a few who have stayed, but in general they don’t last long, and the complexion of the staff is striking in their fealty to the pathetic loyalty of the UK crowd.
News International, across the world, is an X-ray of nihilism and dependency. It is collapsing in the UK, and who knows where it will end. But, again restraining schadenfreude is this — Rupert Murdoch destroyed honest tabloid culture, replaced it with a debased version, and hurried it onto burial. His aged mother can build all the concert halls she likes, he can tweet all his mad thoughts daily when Wendi lets him have the phone, but News Limited is a palace built on shit and blood, and that is where many of his erstwhile inner circle will be living for years to come.