Could this be a glasnost moment for the British media and the politics it has corrupted? That is the question on the lips of many on the left in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and its domino effect across the establishment.To answer it, we have to ask another question – why did it take acts as extreme as hacking the phones of a murder victim and bereaved relatives of soldiers and terror victims by the UK’s largest media corporation before mainstream progressive political actors felt the need to seriously tackle issues of ethics, accountability and monopoly power in the British media?
More important than what triggered this upheaval, or ‘firestorm’ as David Cameron has called it, is what didn’t trigger it and why – how standards of ethics, accountability and basic humanity across large parts of the media were allowed, over decades, to sink to such depths.
The media exerts a constant influence on cultural norms and the moral and ethical landscape in which it operates. It shapes as well as reflects public values and opinion, and right-wing dominance breeds fear, prejudice, hatred, warmongering, sexism and xenophobia.
So where has the left been? To be fair, there has been a lot of brave, persistent campaigning. The NUJ has been taking on Murdoch since he purged the unions in Wapping, working with the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. Together with academics and backbench MPs such as Tom Watson, it has plugged away with research, analysis and proposals and kept issues of media ethics, ownership and accountability on the political radar. More recently, campaigning organisations such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz have taken up the issue – and of course it would still be lingering in political backwaters without determined pursuit by the Guardian.
It is striking, though, that many mainstream progressive figures and organisations have been slow to put their heads above the parapet. Ed Miliband appeared to face a choice between challenging News International or abandoning future hopes for his leadership before he was prepared to speak out. Elsewhere, myriad campaigning groups have by and large acted like media ethics and accountability is none of their business, even though a diverse and democratic, free and accountable media is fundamental to creating the bedrock of public understanding needed for action on progressive issues.
This reflects the enormous imbalance of power between politicians and civil society on one side, and Murdoch, the rest of the right-wing press, and the economic and commercial interests they represent on the other. Many a left-wing politician – from Tony Benn onwards – has learnt the hard way about the risks of going in alone against Murdoch and the right-wing media.
Anthony Barnett, in his analysis of the recent events, points to ‘a collusion of party power with Murdoch’s influence’ resulting from the cohabitation of politicians, journalists and media owners in the same close-knit, incestuous political class. Add to this the police collusion in protecting corporate media interests, and we start to see how Murdoch and other media moguls have been able to suppress criticism of the so-called ‘normal’ operation of a free press.
Of even greater concern is the growing dependence of interest groups on the media as a source of power. Putting out a press release and securing a story is, in the short-term, far easier than the long, hard slog of reaching out to people and communities and getting them on board with your campaign – or the even harder slog of running participative, democratic and deliberative processes that engage and empower people in a way that gives them a voice in and power over organisational strategies and priorities.
The widespread silence of the progressive ecosystem can therefore be seen as evidence of a wider failing on the part of our civil society to value empowerment and support the building of a real counter-power to prevailing economic and political forces.
Hopefully, if our interviews with Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka (page 16) are anything to go by, this could be starting to change. In these and other articles in this issue, we see evidence of the growth of a more involving, participative and movement-based politics, and a willingness to act outside narrow interest areas in solidarity with others, on issues across the whole spectrum of progressive concerns.
The discussion on media reform is already producing new proposals on ownership and plurality, on journalistic ethics and freedoms, and how to fund a diverse, plural and independent media. There is great potential for this to trigger real transformation in the British media and politics, rather than a return to business as usual as we have seen with the banks. But this can only be realised if civil society urgently comes together around a common agenda for media reform – and in active support of its vocal advocates.