11 Jul 2011

Britain's Watergate? Mea Culpa!

The shock is less the content of the News International disclosures, than the fact that finally any of it has now been disclosed. The Twittersphere is littered with questions today: “Why didn’t you do more? Why didn’t you tell us”. They are questions I ask myself.

It was under Mrs Thatcher’s Premiership that standing in Downing Street, covering another story altogether, I spotted Rupert Murdoch going in by the front door. I saw him again going through the door under John Major and again under Tony Blair. I did not think nothing of it, but I was doing something else. I did not see him going through David Cameron’s front door, because by last year the entrance was more commonly through the back entrance.

So much of the “action”, even the “hysteria” surrounding the Murdochs and News International appeared to be about commercial resentment, and envy. And yet….I, like others worried about a man with quite so much media power having quite so much access to the highest echelons of political power. There was also the developing oddity, that whilst successive governments regulated other markets and prevented the likes of Tescos from getting close to a 40 per cent share of those markets, there appeared to be little resistance to allowing Rupert Murdoch that kind of share of the media market.

We knew too of the police links with News International. A prestigious police officer  would retire and end up with a column in the News of the World – Lord John Stevens, the former  Metropolitan Police Chief, and the former anti-terror boss at Scotland Yard, Andy Hayman. This was more about influence than payments. Although Channel 4  has done some brilliant stuff on elements on what we now know, along with others too, there was less willingness to throw the vast resources that would be required at a wholesale take-apart of the Murdoch empire. Few broadcasters and few newspapers (with the notable exceptions of the Guardian and Private Eye) wanted to take it.

More from Channel 4 News: Has Rupert Murdoch been thinking the unthinkable?

As for payments to the police for information – by papers other than the News of the World, yes we have long known that that went on too. From my experience, it affects almost every force in the land.

The relationship between print and broadcasting has always been tense. We both resent and depend upon each other “out on the street”. But these days, the power of print is reducing so fast, that that tension is becoming less obvious. This is one element in what has happened with News International. Amid the dog-eat-dog world of journalism, despite News International’s vast multinational well connected strength, it has become more possible to risk questioning what is going on.

Thus hindsight provides us with this damning tableau. Media moguls with undue influence at the highest political level (as admitted by David Cameron on Friday) became too close. The police manifested a huge reluctance to investigate the notes of News of the World’s hired sleuth Glen Mulcaire, (admitted by Assistant Commander John Yates over the weekend); and the often dormant complicity of the wider media world beyond. What a fertile garden for weeds to take root. This infernal coalition of failure is precisely why this does indeed represent Britain’s Watergate moment. It may not involve “plumbers”. But it has involved us, we the media ‘gardeners’, and we should have done more to assault the weeds on our patch.

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