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Power without responsibility?

December 5, 2011

Power without responsibility is an accusation traditionally levelled at the British Press: it makes and breaks governments and destroys innocent people’s lives without fear of the consequences.

Some argue this is the price you pay for a free press. Certainly the press in the UK is relatively economically robust compared to other European countries and the US. And that is because it is robust – our papers are printed in black and white, not grey, and it is the Red Tops’ devil may care attitude to rules and reason that makes them so appealing to their huge readerships.

Better that, many think, than the supine Euro papers that owe all their allegiance and readership to a particular political party or religion. The same ‘Holier than Thou’ press establishments that say they never would have phone hacked would also never have uncovered it if they had – investigative journalism is virtually unheard of.

In the US – where there is a better tradition of revelatory reporting – the press only clings on because of obsessive localism, but the ‘important papers’ are all in terrible financial trouble – this must be, at least in part, because they are So Boring!

The Leveson Inquiry in the UK will doubtless come up with stronger more independent regulation of the press and perhaps some kind of cheaper access to legal redress for ‘civilians’ (non-celebrities). This would be a good thing. I don’t think it will recommend statutory regulation and, if it does, it should be rejected out of hand – that’s a very slippery slope that will help hasten the demise of the press, free or otherwise.

No one can say this time there were no consequences for the Third Estate – the biggest selling newspaper in the English speaking world was closed because of the phone hacking scandal. A paper that alongside its abhorrent – but also, arguably, abberational – behaviour has done a lot of proper investigatory reporting.

Many who work there and many more who mourn the closure of any newspaper, think it was done to save the skins of senior managers. It didn’t work, they’ve all gone and several have subsequently been arrested.

One remains. James Murdoch has symbolically resigned from the UK newspaper operating companies but remains chairman of their parent. But that’s a News Corp subsidiary. More controversially he remains the chairman of BSkyB. Despite the wishes of many independent shareholders the board, the News Corp block vote and a few fellow travellers voted last week to keep him. That’s Power without Responsibility.

Did James Murdoch authorise hacking? Of course not, that would be profoundly stupid. Did he wilfully cover it up? Probably not, that would be almost as stupid. Did he naively believe what he was told by the kind of executives who have clawed their way to the top of a newspaper company? Did he show a profound lack of curiosity about a business he seems to only pretend to like to please his father? You decide.

What is not up for debate is whether this is going to run and run. There is so much more merde to hit the ventilateur it isn’t true. Beyond the highly critical Leveson verdict will lie months, years even, of civil and criminal cases. Even if nothing more emerges to the detriment of James Murdoch, the distraction alone means a major PLC should have thought better of his appointment.


Categories: Blogs, Nick Snow