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TV review: Tabloids, Tories and Telephone Hacking

How powerful is Rupert Murdoch? What is his relationship to the British state? The documentary Tabloids, Tories and Telephone Hacking (Dispatches, C4, October 4th), written and presented by Peter Oborne, alleged that Andy Coulson, as editor of Murdoch's mass Sunday tabloid the News of the World, and now the Prime Minister’s right-hand man, sanctioned the telephone hacking of up to 6,000 public figures, including members of the Cabinet. It also claimed that the police deliberately shelved their investigation into the case, despite evidence which the Crown Prosecution Service’s senior lawyer said ‘was likely to reveal a vast array of offending behaviour.’

Two men were convicted of hacking Prince Harry’s phone at Buckingham Palace in 2005.  They were Clive Goodman, the News of the World's royal reporter, along with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.  Both were jailed.  The court accepted the claim that Mulcaire had been working on his own initiative, and that Goodman was thus a single bad apple at the paper.

But according to a report in the New York Times, phone hacking on the tabloid was rife: ‘Everyone knew.  The office cat knew.’  Paul McMullen, former News of the World features editor, concurs:  ‘People who knew how to do it would do it regularly’.  When Goodman was arrested, many on the paper were justifiably terrified of arrest themselves.  But their fear turned to surprise when no further police investigations took place.

John Prescott, one of the paper's victims, has accused the police of 'putting a lid' on the inquiry.  Brian Paddick, who as an openly gay senior policeman was another of the News of the World’s targets, says there is a cosy and dangerous relationship between Murdoch's papers and the police:  ‘These newspapers are so powerful they may even be above the law.’

Take what happened to Andy Hayman, the senior police officer in charge of the half-hearted investigation, which failed even to inform victims like Prescott that they'd been targeted.  Hayman became a target of the paper himself over an alleged expenses scandal, and having left the force was then employed by another Murdoch paper, the Times as a columnist.  Effectively silenced, it's little wonder he refused to be interviewed by Dispatches and little wonder that he has condemned Prescott’s recent call for a judicial review into the police inaction as a ‘rant’.

'Had Mr Hayman been in charge of the Watergate inquiry, President Nixon would have safely served a full term,'  says Labour MP Paul Farrelly.  Even now, any new witnesses coming forward are interviewed by Scotland Yard under caution.  The lawyer representing another phone-hack target, publicist Max Clifford, sees this as a deliberate means of putting them off and preventing any new evidence coming to light.

There are also financial links between newspaper and police that shine a light on Scotland Yard’s refusal to act.  Former editor Rebekah Brooks has admitted publicly that the paper paid police for information and would do so in future.  Paul McMullen says such payments are common, while royal author Peter Burden explains that in return the police provide the newspaper with scoops like the story of the kidnap attempt on Posh Spice – and protect the paper from scrutiny.

Murdoch's power is such that even rival newspapers, the Guardian excepted, have been conspicuously muted in their reporting of the hacking case, unwilling to alienate the ‘most powerful’, according to the Guardian’s Nick Davies.  Stephen Glover, writing in the Independent, says:  "Neither the Daily Mail nor the Daily Telegraph yet wants to go to war with Mr Coulson, who is, after all, in the Tory camp."

The previous government was also silenced.  Even when Coulson was appointed Cameron’s director of communications, little fuss was made by New Labour.  Prescott says his colleagues feared Murdoch’s power.  Now out of office Prescott is freer to pursue the matter.

The ‘mother of parliaments’ also bows to Murdoch.  When Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price tried to force News International boss Rebekah Brooks to attend a parliamentary Culture Media and Sports committee hearing to explain the company’s record, he was told that if the committee didn't back off, Murdoch's press would ‘go for’ its members.  The committee caved in to the threat.

And when Labour MP Tom Watson called for the resignation of Tony Blair, Murdoch’s man at the time, Rebekah Brooks threatened to hound him throughout the rest of his career.  He told Dispatches he'd seriously considered leaving parliament as a result.  Many other MPs were afraid to appear on the programme.

Yet in spite of its fearsome reputation, the News of the World is clearly rattled by the prospect of aggrieved phone-hack victims speaking out.  It has already paid out millions in out of court confidentiality agreements.  Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Assocation, was given £700,000, a payout agreed at the highest level of the newspaper group.  Max Clifford was also paid off.  So too were Goodman and Mulcaire after their release from prison.  Nick Davies from the Guardian says there are hundreds of others queuing up for out of court settlements.

Another concern for the paper is George Galloway MP, who refuses to be bought off.  He intends to force Coulson into court where he would risk perjuring himself and his perjury being unmasked by a whistle-blower.

British ruling class corruption is nothing new, of course, and much of it has always been legal or 'above the law'.  After the miners’ strike, oligarch Robert Maxwell conducted a smear campaign against Arthur Scargill, again using dodgy methods and closely co-operating with state forces such as MI5.

What Dispatches did was to show the nature of such corruption today, when groupings like the Chipping Norton Triangle (Chipping Norton is the town where David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks, Tory publicist Matthew Freud and his wife Elizabeth Murdoch live) exert dangerous control over the country, as the pro-fascist Cliveden set did in the 30s.

An example of their reach is David Cameron's announcement last July that he would scrap Ofcom. This is a quango with the power to limit Murdoch's expansion of his media conglomerate Newscorp's share of the TV market, notably BSkyB, and which published a report concluding that Sky was monopolising the pay TV market.  Leading market analyst UBS Investment Research said that Cameron’s announcement ‘bodes well for Sky’ in terms of its future share price.  The Sun's decision to switch horses to backing the Tories was announced soon after Cameron’s speech.

James Murdoch's outspoken attacks on the BBC chime with Tory pro-commercial TV instincts, and with Coulson at the heart of government, the Murdoch empire has a virtual Cabinet post, just as it did during the Blair years.

Right wing journalist Peter Oborne has produced a useful reminder of the nexus of unaccountable power in a capitalist democracy.