Rupert Murdoch is a distraction

His company's misdeeds divert attention from the bigger issues, according to Adrian Hamilton
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The Independent Online

The biter bit. The supreme irony of the present assault on Rupert Murdoch and News International is that the very hysteria used by his and other popular papers to gather up a storm of public outrage over paedophiles, abusive parents and released offenders is now being turned on his papers by the very politicians they have so tormented.

There's the same demand for instant resignations, the same demonisation of individuals, the same blame poured on the police for their failures, the same fervour whipped up against a man of power who must be brought down.

No doubt Gordon Brown and his wife really did feel deeply upset when their child's illness was publicised and the Prime Minister really did sympathise with him in view of his own experience.

No doubt, too, that it is for the best of motives that all three party leaders in turn have met and shared outrage before the cameras with the family of the murdered Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked into. As speaker after speaker stood up to say in the Commons on Wednesday, the anger of the people has found its voice in a newly empowered Parliament.

That, at any rate, is the "narrative" being put about. The other interpretation is that we're witnessing one of those all-too-frequent occasions when politicians unite in outdoing each other in moral fervour. Wednesday was not what Socrates would have called debate.

Rupert Murdoch has been a thoroughly malign influence in British life. His pursuit of ratings has driven public discourse to its lowest common denominator. His delight in setting off one against another in his companies, as in his family, has ensured that almost everyone who comes into contact with him has been diminished in the process – not least the politicians now baying for his blood.

But to erect this man into some kind of omnipotent superpower able to instruct governments and people at his will is to misunderstand the nature of the problem between politics and the press and to exaggerate greatly the victory of the politicians against him.

Murdoch has never been all-powerful, nor has he seen himself as such. Governments have always had the option to say no to him. That prime ministers and ministers haven't may have had something to do with fear. But the chief reason was that politicians hoped to gain favour by being emollient to Murdoch and his newspapers. They wanted his support and – just like his editors – they didn't wait for instructions. If Murdoch regarded them as mere suitors, it is because they acted as such.

What really worries Murdoch is his business in the US. If events here should – as they might – affect his position in America, then he really will be hurt.

The Commons Committee would like to make its hearings into a theatre of public humiliation of hated business figures, as the Senate Committees did with the banks and the car companies. But it is a performance art, not a means of improving policy. All that bloodletting in Washington, after all, effected very little in the way of a change in behaviour by its interrogees.

The trouble with concentrating on Murdoch is that it diverts attention from the larger issues of backstairs influence and the lack of transparency in government.

Murdoch's access to No 10 is not so different from that enjoyed by BP, British Aerospace and other major companies, with often even more morally reprehensible results. Nick Clegg would use this opportunity to change the way government is handled. It might be greatly desired, but it's unlikely to happen. The last thing ministers want is full transparency. Nothing would ever get done.

Instead, they will concentrate, as they are doing now, on a single target of public unpopularity – the press. Fair enough. The media has much to answer for. But excessive power is not one of them. The growing tension between newspapers and politicians owes itself to a loss of influence by both. The more the press has lost readers and advertisers, the more febrile has been its search for an audience through personality scoops and for importance through attacking and bringing down senior figures. And the more politicians have lost credibility with the public, the more they have locked in to newspapers, with leaks and offers of privileged access.

Murdoch didn't invent this pursuit of ratings, nor is he the only one seeking readers through ferocious attacks (arguably the Daily Mail has been even more influential). News International was just more ruthless and successful in doing it than most of its competitors. It's not produced a worthy press, but regulation is not going to sort it out. Nothing the News of the World or its stablemates did, or may have done, would have been prevented by regulation, voluntary or compulsory. It was already illegal. Better enforcement of the existing law could and should have stopped it.

But then bringing in the law and a judge to head the inquiry is not going to do much good either.

The press is not just there to inform and uncover wrongdoing. It is there to entertain and remind the public at large that all, high and low, are just humans underneath.

That is why satire, even more than journalism, has proved the main retort to authoritarian regimes in the Soviet Union and the Middle East. And that is why we need newspapers to observe and report the personal lives of those who would lord it over us.

If it ever gets to the stage where the press is told it can cover only what is deemed to be "in the public interest", and it will never be allowed to blag, deceive or lie to get a story, then it will not be democracy or the public which will have won, but the establishment in all its judicial pomposity.