POLITICS JULY 20, 2011
Two weeks ago, Britain was a nation lost, permanently ill at ease, with a mutant, hybrid government and an air of meekness and gloom. There wasn’t anything to distract us, to feel particularly ashamed or proud of—everything was just a bit depressing. Nine out of ten news stories were about Kate Middleton’s hats (too Canadian?) or clavicles (too pointy?). In Europe, we would have just looked insensitive if we had complained about our dull, entrenched problems, given the exuberant sleaziness in Italy and chaos in Greece. We simply had to resign ourselves to gray skies, vague anxiety, and the rising cost of bread.
But then came the answer to British malaise—the galvanizing effect of pure evil. The revelation about News International’s phone-hacking has rattled every thinking person. To the general public, it’s a confirmation that tabloid journalists are the soulless, homunculus con men they always thought, but even more chilling. For politicians, it’s prompted an undignified scramble to disassociate themselves from an organization they have spent decades inviting round for cocktails. And, for a lucky few, it’s provided an unrivaled moment of opportunity—for some to claw their way back from electoral obscurity, for others to sell two million more papers on a Sunday.
THE NEWS THAT murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been hacked into by a private investigator acting on behalf of The News of the World was transformative. It immediately changed the phone-hacking scandal from a long-simmering investigative concern of a few Guardian reporters to the biggest story in the country, as it remains a fortnight on. The story is so compelling because it challenges even the most cynical observers, people who take a default world weary stance on media and politics. Those misanthropists who had always airily proclaimed that tabloid newspapers were festering dens of greed and amorality, and that the upper levels of the police, the government, and the press were probably in cahoots, were slightly sickened to find that, not only was all this true, it was much worse than they had imagined. (Enter Paul McMullan, former deputy features editor for The News of the World, who appeared on the BBC current affairs program Newsnight on July 8 to discuss the scandal. He could only have done more p.r. damage if he’d sat there vivisecting kittens; he came across as cringing yet vicious, a man who called victims of his newspaper’s methods “a small price to pay” and bleated about “press freedom.”)
Before July 4,the attitude taken by most everyone not in Westminster or Wapping (the headquarters of News International), underinformed as we were, was that, while phone-hacking did go on, it was confined to celebrities and politicians, who are notoriously difficult to feel sorry for. The revelation that it was not only employed to investigate crime victims and their families, but that it was used routinely to do so, that it was a go-to journalistic tool for NotW, required some getting used to. It showed a kind of disregard for and harnessing of human suffering that we hoped had gone out of fashion with cackling Victorian workhouse owners. It meant redefining what we thought British establishment figures capable of, and capable of tolerating. Trembling, prime ministers had capitulated to bad behavior, even, in the case of Gordon Brown, attending the wedding of ex-NotW editor Rebekah Brooks when she had chosen to run a front page story on his son’s cystic fibrosis. Police officers, we’ve learned, accepted bribes and left evidence to molder in basements.
Each day, more Scotland Yard officers, News International employees, and politicians are being implicated. Indeed, this situation has torched through prominent, agenda-setting public figures, and even some of those not forced to resign will find their position permanently weakened. Consider Prime Minister David Cameron. A key strategy in modern Tory politics is for the front bench to try to prove that they are not, as the nickname goes, “the Nasty Party,” a party that would, metaphorically and literally, steal food from the hands of starving children to provide hor d’oeuvres for a podgy industrialist. But now, Cameron, the party’s leader, will always be answering both for his decision to hire former NotW editor Andy Coulson as communications director and, to a lesser extent, for his friendship with Brooks. (Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, and Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, both warned Cameron of what has now come to light about Coulson. The conclusion drawn by many is that Cameron must have considered Coulson’s alleged crimes unimportant or ignorable.) So the Tories’ effort to protect their reputation has been badly damaged.
Meanwhile, the undoubted political beneficiary of the scandal is Ed Miliband, goofy leader of the Labour opposition. If it’s not too outdated to reference the TV show Frasier, Miliband is the Niles Crane of British politics, an unprepossessing nerd with a speech impediment (and a Nation internship on his resumé). Prior to the phone-hacking revelations, Miliband seemed pointless—he wasn’t radical enough to appease the unions, nor mainstream enough to appeal to the average voter. (Part of the stagnancy alluded to at the beginning of the article was attributable to Miliband and the lack of credible or inspiring political opposition.) But it’s geekiness that has saved him, and possibly his career: He is clear of implication in the scandal because Brooks never considered him worthy of wasting her legendary schmoozing skills on. He never got invited to all the fun Westminster parties, and so now can wield a truly intimidating amount of justified self-righteousness. He has found his platform—that everyone else is a corrupt sleaze whom he will see taken down, or that he’ll go out in a blaze of glory trying. A tweet Miliband issued Sunday night nicely summed up his newfound mandate as Westminster’s conscience: “Banking crisis, MPs expenses scandal and the hacking revelations all linked – powerful people who think they don’t have to follow the rules.” The next question, of course, which we can’t yet answer, is whether this mentality can hold until the next election and give Labour some much-needed political traction.
In addition to its impact on public thinking and British politics, the scandal has also influenced the British media set up. Broadsheet papers like the Times, Telegraph, and Observer were never going to pick up Sunday readers from the disgraced NotW. So the mess has left the Sun and Daily Mail, reactionary tabloids, to profit from a now untapped readership of millions. It is the increase in the Daily Mail’s power that is most troubling. The News of the World’s methods may have been contemptible, but its content was usually just gossip and filth, romps, vice, and exposés. There was a shrugging, almost cheerful knowingness in its coverage. In contrast, the Daily Mail is about prurience and disapproval, about telling its readers that everything is getting worse, whether because of frisky youth, shifty immigrants, or because the nebulous concept of ‘‘Englishness’’ is being eroded by shadowy forces. Hopefully, the demise of one tabloid will not lead to the dominance of another, with a far more insidious message.
So the public’s view of their country and its institutions is shifting, and power, in both politics and the media, is in flux. Change was needed, but it remains to be seen whether it was the kind that’s been instigated by News International’s spectacular shame. Newly empowered politicians may simply morph back into the establishment once their rhetoric has earned them a few votes, and a new, but oddly similar paper may take over the role of “advising” politicians and police, backed up with the threat of front-page humiliation.
Victoria Beale works on the Books desk of the Financial Times in London. You can follow her on Twitter @victoriabeale.