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
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The Independent Online

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