Hollow Men: The Leveson Inquiry, And A Generation Of Politicians In Denial About Their Betrayal Of Democracy – Column 15.6.12
JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 15.6.12
AT THE ROYAL COURTS OF JUSTICE in the Strand, the Leveson Inquiry grinds on, slowly teasing out the detail of the relationships between politicians, police and press in 21st century Britain. Most people, of course, have long since lost interest in the proceedings; even when, as this week, the witnesses include Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, and the UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Yet beyond all the dry, repetitive questioning, there are vital political questions lying in the background of the Leveson debate, ignored and often untirely unnamedt. From the media side, of course, the story is one of structural decline and sharpening competition, which helped shape a newsroom culture where, in some newspapers at least, ethical and lawful conduct towards the subjects of their journalism – often innocent victims of crime, like the McCann and Dowler families – became a dead letter.
If the accusations against the media are serious, though, then the accusations against the police and politicians – the other key players identified by Leveson – are even more so. For that culture of illegal media conduct to flourish, after all, many blind eyes had to be turned. Police officers had to be bought, squared or flattered; and even more unnerving is the extent of the complicity among our political class. Until the day last July when Ed Miliband decided that enough was enough, and spoke out in the Commons with those prepared to damn News International for the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, there was scarcely a front-bench politician of any hue who dared to say “boo” to Rupert Murdoch and his power.
And if you stand back a little from this week’s Leveson questioning, the picture – however confused by defensive wordplay under fire – soon becomes unpleasantly clear; in the aftermath of the 2010 UK general election, both the UK and the Scottish governments were prepared to support the complete News International takeover of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, despite the fact that this takeover would give the Murdoch company control of an overwhelming proportion of the British media market, far more than would be allowed in the United States, or almost any other western democracy.
Alex Salmond expressed his support directly, claiming to have been persuaded that the takeover would bring jobs to Scotland; David Cameron expressed his indirectly, by removing from the role of deciding on the takeover a Liberal Democrat minister who had declared his opposition to Murdoch’s power, and replacing him with a Conservative minister, Jeremy Hunt, who had strongly declared his support for it. Both Alex Salmond and David Cameron, in other words, will struggle to escape the suspicion that they sold the real interests of the British people – in a genuinely diverse media – to a corporation whose American television channel, Fox, poisons the entire public life of that nation with a diet of toxic lies, and whose British operations were increasingly engaged in criminal breaches of privacy; and that they did so – explicitly or implicitly – as a quid pro quo for the support of those newspapers in the elections they faced.
Now there is no point in waxing morally indignant about this; wily politicians have struck such unspoken or half-spoken deals with the big beasts of the media throughout the modern age, and have always denied doing so, sticking to the letter rather than the spirit of the arrangement.
What is alarming, though, is the extent of the misjudgment involved in this compulsive schmoozing of the Murdoch empire, at a time when it was becoming ever more vulnerable to ethical, legal and commercial challenge, and when politicians’ failure to stand up to it was fast becoming a national scandal. It bespeaks a generation of politicians – Conservative, Labour and SNP alike – so drenched in neoliberal thinking that exaggerated deference to wealth becomes their default response to any political situation; a generation so ethically and politically confused that even a once-robust Labour poltician like Gordon Brown, and his strikingly sensible wife, ended up indulging in excruciating displays of social bonhomie with media bosses who detested their politics, and who had already betrayed their personal confiidence by exploiting their sick child for journalistic gain.
What this demonstrates, in other words, is that polticians who lose their sense of popular mandate, and who become more concerned with placating and flattering their boss-class friends, are really office-holders without purpose or dignity, hollow men in the most profound sense of the phrase. Wealth and power, after all, can always look after themselves. The whole purpose and dignity of democratic politics lies in speaking up for those who are otherwise powerless, and who depend on democracy to give them their say; and polticians who fail in that function, by becoming mere mouthpieces for the wealthy, are effectively destroying their own trade, and bringing their profession into disrepute.
Small wonder, therefore, after a generation of this kind of failure, that voters are increasingly unlikely to turn up at the polls at all, and that politicians are held in lower esteem than at any time in the past century. “They Work For Us”, says the political website of that name, which encourages people to hold their elected representatives to account; and in theory, of course they do. But in practice, what Leveson offers is a portrait of a political class increasingly comfortable woth the idea of working not for us, but for the likes of Rupert Murdoch, and for their friends in his social circle. They did it not only out of cowardice – out of fear of Murdoch’s power, and of what he could do to their electoral prospects – but out of sheer ideological laziness; a willingness to buy too easily into the right-wing lie that the interests of big corporations always coincide with the interests of the people.
And even today – in their generally evasive approach to Leveson – their visible unwillingness to pick up the cudgels and fight, at the moment when it becomes clear that corporate power is damaging the interests of the people, is gradually corroding the very idea of democracy; and making the idea of government of the people, by the people and for the people seem less like the foundation-stone of western politics, and more like some kind of naive pipe-dream, fading rapidly into history.