Sunday, 17 July 2011

The sweet ironies of the Murdoch empire brought to heel

The fall from grace of the Murdoch empire contains many rich ironies. Above all, the element that gives me most satisfaction is that the News of the World's disgusting obsession with sensationalist reporting of child murders directly led to the scandal that brought its closure. The tabloid campaigns against alleged paedophiles were absurd, unnecessary, unhelpful and cancerous to good public policy and safety. It should be noted that Rebekah Brooks remained proud to the end that she led one of the worst of these campaigns.

On the wider issue of Murdoch's influence over politicians, there is a bigger irony. It is easy to forget, 50 years on, that when Murdoch first came onto the British media scene in the 1960s that he was the outsider determined to break up the complacent and deferential establishment culture. His belief was that people were being denied news and entertainment that they wanted, instead being patronised by self-serving views of the elite.

Roll forward to the start of the new century and the establishment was no more. The key institutions of the ancien regime – aristocracy, the Church of England, the Conservative Party – were close to collapse, following attacks from both right and left. In their place stood a thin, celebrity-obsessed culture, one that denigrated the institutions and mechanisms by which people achieve long-lasting and meaningful success. A culture that applauds people winning a country's worth of wealth through a state-backed lottery.

Always close to the helm of this empty, random, "late" culture was Murdoch (followed by his less pleasant mini-me, Richard Desmond). The journey from outsider to dominant patriarch was complete. Time had shown that Murdoch's problem with the establishment was that he wasn't running it.

But like in a movie, one journalist knew there was something terribly wrong at the heart of his biggest, brashest newspaper, The News of the World. At each turn in his investigation he found the paper's misdeeds involved more and more members of the new establishment. Meanwhile, peers ignored, sneered or played up the flaws in Nick Davies' work. They had forgotten – if they ever knew – that the best journalists are usually obsessive. In a climate full of lazy journalists spoon-fed by PR firms and the internet, few remembered that proper journalism is awkward and jarring, driven forward by unusual and intense people.

Is it ironic that News International's worst excesses were exposed and brought down by proper journalism? Probably, though more accurately it may be described as sweet justice. Is it a shot in the arm of investigative journalism everywhere? Definitely. Though as long as we remember the right bits of the story.

Is the Murdoch empire finished? Probably not, but it has been put back in its box (there is some kind of lesson there for those that assume big companies always get their own way). Where we go from here is for us to decide.

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