So phone hacking was just a scandal, not a crisis

Regular readers will know how useful I find David Runciman’s distinction between scandals and crises. (Scandals happen all the time, cause a lot of fuss and result in no fundamental change. Crises do trigger substantive change.) This piece by Michael Wolff, a Murdoch biographer and general-purpose media watcher, in which he reflects on the outcome of the London trial of some Murdoch lieutenants, confirms my gloomy conjecture: that the phone-hacking business was just a scandal.

The campaign’s most potent scare symbol was the disgraced Brooks, and a story line that had her using her paper and closeness to the Murdoch family to achieve vast influence in the British government. But Brooks now emerges from the nine-month trial as something more like a martyr, herself the victim of a merciless press, ever hounded by political enemies. (With special spite, her husband, who was also acquitted, was put on trial with her for hiding computers — containing, instead of evidence, his porn collection.)

But there was a conviction — one that quite nicely serves Murdoch’s purposes. Andy Coulson, former editor of Murdoch’s weekly scandal sheet, News of the World — which closed in the wake of the hacking revelations — was the one person convicted of phone hacking in the trial. Coulson had gone on to become Prime Minister David Cameron’s press secretary. Murdoch can now maintain what he has always maintained: It was disloyal midlevel lieutenants who hacked, not anyone close to him. What’s more, Coulson becomes Cameron’s problem for hiring a now-convicted felon. Murdoch has long felt it was a wishy-washy Cameron who let the hacking investigation grow and vowed his revenge. Now he has it.

The 83-year-old Murdoch’s difficulties in London aren’t quite finished. There are ongoing hearings at which he is scheduled to testify and continuing regulatory threats against his businesses. But now the `prima facie case is gone. In a sense, it is a reset. It’s back to lots of people hating Murdoch and lots of people eager to be in his favor and do his bidding.

Nothing changes. There will be no substantive change in the way the British tabloid media operate. So it was a scandal, not a crisis.

As Peter Wilby puts it in the New Statesman:

As for hoping that newspapers will repent of their sins and now accept the royal charter that followed the Leveson inquiry, forget it. “Great day for red tops”, proclaimed the Sun, celebrating Brooks’s acquittal and treating Coulson’s conviction as a mere sideshow (a “rogue editor”, perhaps). “The Guardian, the BBC and Independent will be in mourning today,” wrote its associate editor Trevor Kavanagh. “Sanctimonious actors like Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan will be deliciously Hacked Off. We have . . . taken a tentative step back towards a genuinely free press.” Murdoch’s Times judged that Brooks’s acquittal “shows that a rush to implement a draconian regime to curb a free press was a disaster”. The Daily Mail had a leader on “the futility of Leveson”.

As the press is well aware, public outrage over hacking has long passed its peak. People don’t like the tabloids and they don’t like politicians getting too close to them. They want – or say they want – stricter controls on newspapers. But in the pollsters’ jargon, the issue has “low salience”. To most, the subject just isn’t important enough to change either their vote or their buying and surfing habits in the news market. The press can continue on its merry way.

Yep. But it ought still to be a crisis for the Prime Minister, who cheerfully employed Coulson as his spinmeister despite being explicitly warned about his background. But my hunch is that Cameron is already in such deep trouble (much of it of his own making — see his fatuous campaign to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker becoming EC President) that the Coulson debacle comes relatively low down in the list.

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