As the Murdoch media empire stumbles (at least in the UK) in the unexpected glare of negative publicity, it is fascinating to hear the palpable relief of politicians (of all hues, seemingly) to have come out from under its power.
It’s different in degree of course, but I’m reminded of the fall of Mubarak or Ceausescu: suddenly a power that seemed unassailable, is seen to be vulnerable, and those who were cowed into silence, or felt obliged to curry favour, find themselves able to express some of the dislike, resentment, even hate, that they’d been concealing all those years, perhaps even from themselves, as they attended the lunches and the weddings and ate the canapes. Different in degree again, of course, but I’m reminded too of recovering victims of Stockholm Syndrome.
Fascinating, but also disturbing. We knew Mubarak and Ceausescu were dictators, but Murdoch’s power was more subtle, and though we knew it was there, we perhaps can only get a really visceral sense of its full extent, when we feel the relief of its temporary absence.
But it is a temporary absence. The empire is stumbling but has not fallen, and even if it does fall, there are plenty of other empires and would-be empires that would happily take its place. We shouldn’t just sit back and enjoy the drama of the empire in difficulty, or allow the sole legacy of this moment to be a tinkering around with rules of privacy or with mechanisms for dealing with press complaints. If this story is to be more than a redtop melodrama of villainy exposed, then the opportunity needs to be seized not to rein in freedom of speech, but promote it by legislating to ensure plurality.
Surely it would not be unreasonable to say that no individual and no private company can own more than one daily paper, or more than one weekly? And surely it would be reasonable to insist that if you own a newspaper, you can’t also own a TV station of any kind? And surely genuine plurality requires too that a substantial portion of the media should not be under the control of private corporations and/or beholden to advertisers.
It is worth remembering that this whole spectacle is being unfolded for us by Murdoch’s rivals. (The BBC for instance is positively crowing ). Even this we are not watching unmediated. How could we? We have to rely on others. The important thing is to ensure that we have a lot of different others to rely on, with a lot of different interests and points of view.