Brian Cathcart: Thinking Italian: UK is like Berlusconi without the whores

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The Independent Online

The phone-hacking scandal is no longer about who at the News of the World knew what was going on. We are a long way past that point. It is about how Britain is governed.

Think of it this way: the operations of Rupert Murdoch's companies in the UK invite comparison with Silvio Berlusconi's Italy, a place we are used to viewing either with horror or with amused contempt. It could never happen here, you may think. But let's look at Britain today as an Italian might see it.

Murdoch, it hardly needs saying, owns four British national newspapers and a big slice of BSkyB, and he's bidding to buy the rest of BSkyB. He and his son James are the country's most powerful media figures.

Until 10 days ago, a former Murdoch editor who was publicly disgraced in 2007 was one of the three or four people closest to the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Rupert and James Murdoch and News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, have enjoyed and continue to enjoy unfettered and unminuted access to the Prime Minister.

Successive governments have grovelled to the Murdochs, apparently because of the influence the papers have on public opinion and because of their magnetic wealth. But in the past few months, MPs have also spoken of fear that if they criticise Murdoch companies, their private lives will be attacked in those papers. This seems the most likely reason why several senior politicians whose phones are known to have been hacked have taken no legal action.

That hacking was done, as we know, by employees of the Murdochs, and, although celebrity victims have received most attention, other targets have included government ministers, up to and possibly including Gordon Brown, as well as two royal princes, several Palace staff and perhaps some senior police officers.

The two jailed Murdoch employees later received handsome severance payments. And when a hacking victim produced evidence that other employees were involved, he was paid over £600,000 for his silence. Then three others were paid off.

It sounds pretty Italian so far, no?

The country's biggest police force conducted an investigation, but failed to act on information that would almost certainly have directed them towards more widespread wrongdoing. Instead, they adopted News International's line that only one rogue reporter was involved and stuck to it for more than four years. The Crown Prosecution Service accepted this.

The police also resisted efforts by people who feared they were victims to gain access to evidence. This had the effect of assisting News International by delaying private legal actions. The Press Complaints Commission also failed to challenge the company, while most of the rest of the press either ignored the story or insisted it didn't matter.

And then there was Britain's large and increasingly powerful mobile phone industry, which assures its customers that their calls are secure but mysteriously leaked like a sieve when approached by Murdoch's representative, Glenn Mulcaire.

Politics, the police, the media and the phone industry, all tangled in what an Italian might well consider to be a web of systemic corruption. Only the prostitutes are missing.

There are many differences, but until now we've concentrated on those and sneered at the Italians. Isn't it time we worried about the similarities?

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University