Margaret Drabble: Now we have the chance to purge ourselves of insidious shame

The Murdoch press has infected our public discourse. Rival newspapers have been forced to compete in lurid headlines, fake scandals and celebrity gossip

Share
Related Topics

The most astonishing feature of the past week's astonishing events has been the shock, surprise and disgust expressed by so many in public life, all of whom knew perfectly well what had been going on for years and years under Murdoch's rule.

I knew, everyone else I knew knew, and we weren't surprised at all. So how is it conceivable that they didn't? The hypocrisy was breathtaking, or would have been had it not been exactly what we cynical and hitherto powerless citizens had expected.

We have watched, over decades, the erosion of press standards, the remorseless selling of sensational celebrity junk, the intrusion into deep grief and harmless adulteries, the inflammation of false indignations, the courting of Murdoch power and the Murdoch vote by prime minister after prime minister, and then we say we are surprised? Those of us who haven't been seduced by News International can sit back and say "I told you so" as we watch the danse macabre around its once omnipotent but now dying body. We always knew that parent company whose name we didn't know how to pronounce was bad, bad news. News Corp, News Cor, News Corpse. Rest in Peace.

I was surprised, however, by the speed of the assassination of the News of the World. Although 80, the old despot Murdoch is still smart, and we should not rejoice too soon. He is canny and ruthless. He just got rid of the lot of them, all those journalists and technicians, the infamous, the liars, and the workaday, and as none of them were union members, they won't have much of a comeback.

Murdoch's original assault on the unions cleared the ground for him to do what he wanted. The NUJ has a code of professional ethics, but we didn't hear much of that at Wapping. (Think of a doctor forbidden to join the BMA – will it come to that in the privatised world?) Wapping was a circus arena, a free-for-all, where the winner takes all. Successive governments have been afraid of Murdoch; the PCC had cause to be afraid of Murdoch (one of its founders); overpaid footballers and well-paid actors were afraid of Murdoch's empire; it now appears that anyone, however humble, who was related to anyone who died a sensational death had reason to be afraid of Murdoch, although they (unlike the politicians) genuinely would not have known this. No wonder they all want revenge.

I once saw a copy of the News of the World, some decades ago, over Sunday lunch. My nice middle-class friends bought it every week for a laugh, along with the quality papers, one of which was then the great Sunday Times in its investigative heyday. The NOTW wasn't so crude or so cruel then, and I quite enjoyed the stories of delinquent vicars and mummified corpses in wardrobes. Like most of us, I enjoy reading about a good murder or a violent crime. But it has gone downmarket, and descended into the underworld of deceit, criminality and prurience. I have never myself bought a copy, nor have I ever bought a copy of The Sun. So how do I know what I am talking about? Because I can see what has happened by contagion, by diffusion, by dissemination. You don't have to buy or eat bad meat to recognise the smell. You can see it on the counter. You don't even have to turn to Page Three.

Murdoch's press has infected our public discourse. Rival newspapers have been forced to compete for lurid headlines, for fake scandals, for manufactured celebrity gossip, to which the vindication of public interest could never apply. But of course the public was interested. The public, or some of the public, would flock to attend public hangings, as they do in Iran, given half the chance. Bad journalism drives out good, and we have been forced to witness honourable newspapers disingenuously evading the censure of high-minded people like me by doing round-ups of other papers' more disgraceful stories, just to make sure we don't miss out on the big and little names in sensational affairs and divorces and financial shenanigans and allegations about rigged decisions in Britain's Got Talent. I'm usually weeks out of date with these stories, but eventually, even to me, they filter through. I'm not totally ignorant of popular culture, and I watched Britain's Got Talent closely, because I had a grandson in the semi-finals. So I was really up the mark on that one, for once. I told him his group was too good to win.

The convulsions of the Murdoch empire have provided some spectacular spectator sport. Murdoch created and nurtured the appetite for this kind of combat, and now his family business is busy satisfying it and throwing out lumps of meat for it to devour. His sacrificial victim is Rebekah Brooks, the beautiful Medusa whose snakelocks have weirdly fascinated so many famous men. Her invitations, it seems, are irresistible. She is the red-haired Becky Sharp of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, that place where, according to John Bunyan, we find on sale "all such merchandise as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferment, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold ... here are to be seen too thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers, and that of a blood-red colour". Now she has resigned. We cannot choose but be gripped by this drama. Hardened journalists with decades of inside information profess themselves puzzled by the nature of her attractions, and maybe some mysterious secret will eventually be unveiled. Meanwhile, we wait eagerly for the next instalment.

George Orwell, one of the greatest and most austere of British journalists, did not despise popular culture. He understood our love of a good murder and our affection for The Beano and rude postcards. But he would surely have been appalled by the creeping commercialisation and trivialisation of the press, and by the corruption in high places enabled by the concentration of power.

I don't really like to say this, for fear of being accused of racism, but Rupert Murdoch isn't even British. I don't see why the British press and media should be dominated by one family company, just as I've always thought it unwise for us to sell off so many of our utilities to foreigners. We should be more wary, and keep our own interests at heart. If he were British, we could call him to account. It is cheering to see the British Parliament aiming once more to take control of its own destiny. It is cheering to see Vince Cable's agenda (if not his tactics) vindicated. It was painful but cathartic to see the long-suffering Gordon Brown pour forth his pain, pain that Sky News last night dismissed as nothing but bitterness, bile and revenge. What did Murdoch and Sky expect? The game has changed.

In this country we have long enjoyed high standards of public service broadcasting, which may yet be taken over by the equivalent of Fox News. We still have journalists and newspapers who uphold the honourable traditions of the Sixties and Seventies, when they investigated thalidomide and arms deals, not footballers' wives and sick children. We can purge ourselves of these decades of insidious shame and collusion, not plunge deeper into them. The public will is there, and Parliament knows it. It should represent us. That's what it's for.

Margaret Drabble is the author of numerous novels; a collection of short stories, 'A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman', was published earlier this year

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones