The News of the World scandal is finally taking on its proper dimensions in the minds of the British people.
It has long been obvious to insiders that elements in the media were systematically flouting the rule of law. They made illegal payments for information and engaged in phone hacking on an industrial scale. They bugged the phones of senior politicians, celebrities and, now it seems, the victims of crime. Those on the outside have had little, if any, opportunity to learn about the significance of what was going on. Despite a campaign by the Guardian that began in the summer of 2009, broadcasters and journalists on other papers have largely taken cover behind the notion that it had all been blown out of proportion by a handful of single issue fanatics.
Let’s be clear about what this means. The British media in their current form can neither regulate themselves or report adequately on their own activities. These failures must be added to their demonstrable inability to describe the broad outlines of the economic system in the run-up to the crisis of 2007-8, and their failure to expose the government’s manipulations and deceits in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The media’s collective failure to describe themselves accurately is of a piece with their failure to describe the wider world of power to which they belong.
The BBC in particular stands revealed as an institution without an investigative function. Though it receives more than £3 billion annually and claims its mission is ‘to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain’, it has consistently been unable to provide an accurate account of reality when powerful forces are arrayed against it. It left the Murdoch press free to pursue its ruinous criminality. It gave the Blair government every assistance in its efforts to persuade us that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction. And it stood idly by while the City of London and the political establishment concocted a fantasy of endless economic growth through reckless credit expansion. The result of this last dereliction sits on the balance sheet of the Bank of England – £1400 billion of public debt, conjured up to rescue the private banking corporations. Far from enriching people’s lives, the BBC has colluded in a media-political system that has degraded and impoverished us.
The current structure of power and decision-making in the media cannot now be allowed to remain unchanged. The employees of large media organizations have monopoly control of decisions about what is investigated and what prominence is given to the results of investigations. They have been unable or unwilling to use this monopoly power in the public interest. Accordingly it is time to assert our democratic right to communicate freely amongst ourselves. Each of us must take some some fraction of the commissioning power, the power to initiate and publish inquiries. If we do not our public life will remain a mess of officially sanctioned fairy tales, crocodilian excuses, and grotesque abuses of the innocent, in which market forces and elite prerogatives set the limits of our understanding and hence of our capacity for self-government.
I have set out how we might address the problem of unaccountable media power in various places, most notably here.
By all means campaign against News International. It is important that the full scale of the criminality is revealed. But there is something incomparably greater at stake here. Our media as a whole have failed, and their failure both reflects and contributes to the ongoing social, environmental and economic crisis in which we find ourselves. The operations of the media are the major obstacle to meaningful democracy at the current time. Until we democratize the media we will not discover ourselves as citizens and as human beings.
There has been too much crass intrusion in the pursuit of saleable copy, too much collusion in the interests of power. The former has served to obscure the other. It is time for both to stop.