Adrian Hamilton: Baying for Murdoch's blood will serve no good

He has never been all-powerful, nor has he seen himself as such. Governments have always had the option to say no to him
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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 really did feel deeply upset when his 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 their 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. The sight of Gordon Brown speaking for only the second time in the Commons since his resignation and using that time to talk of criminal conspiracies and blaming the Civil Service for pusillanimously trammelling his intense desire to launch a full investigation into phone hacking was excruciating.

There certainly can't be many who would weep at the demise of Rupert Murdoch – although journalists might not all be happy at the outcome of a sale of his papers. He 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 a superpower able to instruct governments at his will is to misunderstand the nature of the problem between politics and the press, and to greatly exaggerate the victory of the politicians against him. Murdoch has never been all-powerful, nor has he seen himself as such. Governments have ever had the option to say no to him, just as public personalities could have responded to his newspaper threats to expose them with the Duke of Wellington's famous (but probably apocryphal) reply, "Publish and be damned".

That prime ministers and ministers haven't said no may have had something to do with fear, although all the sucking-up in the world didn't save Neil Kinnock or Gordon Brown from having the dogs unleashed on them when election time came round. 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 as his editors – they didn't wait for instructions. If Murdoch regarded them as mere suitors, it is because they acted as such.

It is unlikely that Murdoch is about to bow his knee to the Mother of Parliaments, even if he does appear before the Select Committee next week. What worries him is his business in the US not his relationships in Britain.

Of course, the Commons Committee would like to make their hearings into a theatre of public humiliation of hated business figures, as the Senate Committees did with the banks. But it is 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 the sights on Murdoch is that it diverts from the larger issues of backstairs influence and the lack of transparency in government. The access Murdoch gained to No.10 and its successive occupants is not that different from that enjoyed by BP, British Aerospace and other major companies, with often even more morally reprehensible results. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, would make this the opportunity for forcing a change in the whole way in which government is handled. It might be a wish greatly to be desired but it's unlikely to happen. The last thing ministers want, once they achieve office, is full transparency. Nothing would ever get done.

Instead, they will concentrate, as they are 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 come under competitive pressure, losing readers and advertisers, the more febrile has been its search for an audience through personality scoops and attacking senior figures in public life. And the more politicians have lost credibility with the public, the more they have locked into 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 on people and institutions (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 has not produced a worthy press, but regulation is not going to sort it out. Politicians finding more effective ways of reconnecting with the public might, just as press standards might improve if papers could find better ways of raising revenue than through circulation boosts. Nothing that 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 criminal judge to head the inquiry is not going to do much good either. Contrary to the views of politicians, businessmen and the judiciary, the press is not just there to inform and uncover wrongdoing. It is there to entertain, and in doing so to remind the public at large that all, high and low, are just humans underneath.

That is why satire even more than investigative 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 that the press is told it can only cover what is deemed to be "in the public interest", and that 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.