The phone hacking scandal which has hit Rupert Murdoch’s publishing company News International is getting bigger every day and shows no signs of dying down. The effect on British politics has been compared to a revolution, albeit a very quiet one, and the term “British Spring” has been used. British governments, both Labour and Conservative, had been in thrall to Rupert Murdoch and his media empire, continually currying favour and changing policy to suit him. Before he became prime minister, Tony Blair travelled to Australia for the sole purpose of gaining Murdoch’s support. Blair saw the support of News International publications such as The Sun as crucial if he were to win the next election. Blair’s successors, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron were under the same impression, believing that they continually had to keep Murdoch on side. Thus, Murdoch’s publications were continually given special access to 10 Downing Street, coming out with “scoops” and exclusives.
This, however, was only the tip of the iceberg. One of Tony Blair’s former aides claims that Blair gave Murdoch a veto over the government’s Europe policy, promising Murdoch, a hardline Eurosceptic, that there would be no changes to it without him being consulted. When Blair indicated that he would approve the ill-fated EU Constitution in 2004 without putting the matter to a public referendum, Murdoch’s press turned on him, calling him a traitor. Murdoch threatened to withhold support for Blair at the next election and Blair was forced into a u-turn, promising a referendum on the issue.
After the phone hacking scandal happened Blair’s immediate successor, Gordon Brown, spoke in parliament of his anguish when Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper revealed details of his young son’s cystic fibrosis. However, the influence of Murdoch was such that he and his wife had to keep up a warm personal relationship with the editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks even after she exposed his son’s illness. However, in 2009, News International switched their support from Gordon Brown’s Labour Party to the Conservative Party and Gordon Brown blames this for his loss of the 2010 election.
As for David Cameron, Murdoch was seen quietly leaving Downing Street from the back door the day after he became prime minister. Cameron appointed Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World as his communications director. Until a few short weeks ago, the position of Rupert Murdoch as the most powerful man in Britain’s media industry and kingmaker seemed unassailable.
All this was turned upside down by the phone hacking scandal. This scandal had been brewing for years. In 2006 it was revealed that a News of the World reporter had hacked into the mobile phones of members of the royal family and in 2009 there were further revelations that the phones of celebrities and other public figures had been hacked. However, it took the news that 13 year old murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked after her abduction and that this act of hacking had interfered with the investigation of her murder to really cause public outrage. This was followed by news that the phones of British soldiers and victims of the 7/7 bombings had also been hacked. Overnight the News of the World went from being a bestselling (if widely despised) tabloid to a toxic brand. Companies withdrew their advertisements from it and the paper was forced to close on 8 July. Murdoch had thought that closing the News of the World would be enough to end the scandal and also save the career of Rebekah Brooks, former editor in chief of the News of the World and chief executive of News International who is often referred to as his “fifth daughter”.
However the fallout from the scandal was only just beginning. Brooks was forced to resign on Saturday. She and Andy Coulson, who in January 2011 had resigned as Cameron’s communications director over the phone hacking issue, were arrested and later released. In the wake of public outrage over the scandal, the British political establishment, so long in thrall to Murdoch’s media empire, now turned on the media mogul. Murdoch was forced to abandon his bid to take full control of BskyB, Britain’s largest cable television broadcaster. He and his son James, were summoned to appear before parliament on Tuesday. Initially he resisted the summons but on Tuesday he was forced to give in in what he called “the most humble day of my life”. The previous Friday he had apologised in person to Milly Dowler’s family. A month ago, no one in their wildest dreams would have imagined that the all-powerful Murdoch would fall from grace in this way.
The scandal has exposed the cosy relationship between Britain’s elite and Murdoch’s media empire for all to see. This was seen on Monday when Britain’s top police chief, Paul Stephenson, was forced to resign over his links with News International, along with John Yates, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who failed to investigate the 2009 phone hacking revelations. On Tuesday, Sean Hoare, the News of the World journalist who said that Andy Coulson was aware of the phone hacking while it was happening was found dead in mysterious circumstances. Prime Minister David Cameron is looking increasingly beleaguered because of Coulson’s closeness to the scandal and it is unlikely that he will come out of this affair unscathed. What is happening in Britain is truly unprecedented.
The effects of this scandal and of Murdoch’s fall from grace will be felt all over the world. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, bad news for Murdoch can only be good news for them. Murdoch’s deeply held sympathy for Israel and his enmity towards the Palestinians is clear for all to see. His tabloid press have a track record of Islamophobia and of stirring up hatred against Palestinians. This was seen most recently when Sheikh Raed Salah visited Britain and was arrested on trumped-up charges of anti-Semitism. The Sun was at the forefront of the campaign of vilification against him, calling him a “hate preacher”. Over the matter of Sheikh Raed Salah’s arrest Murdoch’s press and David Cameron were in full agreement. Both were prepared to do Israel’s dirty work for it and victimise an innocent man.
There were many other examples over the years of Murdoch’s newspapers spreading hatred, disinformation, and lies against Palestinians. Perhaps the worst example took place during the Gaza war of 2008-2009. When Israel bombed the Fakhoura school on January 6 2009 killing scores of Palestinians who had been sheltering there, the Sun’s front page headline the following day did not say anything about this. Instead it published a story saying that a “hate hit list” targeting 100 British Jews, including well known entrepreneur and TV personality Alan Sugar, had been published on the Muslim website Ummah.com. This “hit list” was later exposed as being planted by a Sun journalist. The expression “gutter journalism” does not begin to describe the despicability of such actions. The list of infamy goes on and on.
In the run-up to the Iraq war Murdoch’s press was continually beating the war drum, endlessly repeating the line that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was about to use them. Murdoch himself openly admitted however, that he supported war against Iraq because the price of oil would go down as a result. At that time only Murdoch could get away with making such a brazen statement. The despicable actions of his subordinates have now caught up with him and he has suffered a devastating blow that has exposed the duplicity and hypocrisy of his empire for all to see. His stranglehold over British media and political life is now severely weakened and the British public will demand a more accountable press, which supporters of the Palestinian cause should ensure reports from the Middle East in an objective and honest fashion.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.