Is something rotten in the culture of the British press? If so, what is it? As the scandal of phone hacking at the News of the World has been whipped up into a media storm, battering not only the Murdoch family and News Corp. but also Scotland Yard and Downing Street, these are fair questions, and they deserve answers. The fashionable view on both sides of the Atlantic, especially among those who write for News Corp.’s commercial rivals, has been the demonization of Rupert Murdoch as a kind of Citizen Kane. Here, for instance, is Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian: “Murdoch was . . . more powerful than the last three prime ministers of Britain. They have been more frightened of him than he of them.” From California, Garton Ash looks forward to returning to “a Britain that is slightly more free.” David Carr at the New York Times could not contain his hyperbole: “A kind of British spring is under way. Democracy, aided by sunlight, has broken out in Britain.”
How precisely the closure of a newspaper serves the cause of liberty, such commentators cannot say, any more than they can justify their implied comparison with the butchers of Tripoli and Damascus of the man who not only gave the British press a new lease of life by defeating the print unions, but also lavished tabloid profits on the upscale Times and the highbrow Times Literary Supplement for over 30 years. The News of the World, though beneath the contempt of today’s pundits, was loved by George Orwell. He begins his great essay “The Decline of the English Murder” by evoking a scene of postprandial bliss: a working-class Englishman following his Sunday lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding by opening the News of the World to read about the latest, most lurid murders.
Press barons are, of course, a familiar British scapegoat. In 1931, Stanley Baldwin denounced Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere for exercising “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” The phrase (which Baldwin borrowed from Rudyard Kipling) has resonated ever since, though it would be more honest to say that politicians, who really do exercise power, tend to shift responsibility onto the press, which merely reflects public opinion and taste. What made Fleet Street—where newspaper offices huddled together until Rupert Murdoch broke the mold by moving to Wapping—a press culture unique in the world was not the concentration of ownership in a few hands, but the concentration of more than a dozen national newspapers in one place. The intensity of competition generated by such a crowded market tempted a few to abuse their readers’ trust, but until the latest scandal, News Corp. titles were not the worst offenders. A robust press culture remains a bulwark of freedom for which lapses of taste or worse are a price worth paying. What really matters is that editors and other journalists can echo John Milton’s Areopagitica, his classic defense of the free press: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
It was Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, his prewar satire about Fleet Street, that created the cliché of the servile newspaperman not daring to contradict his proprietor except with the coded words: “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” I can honestly say that in nearly a decade as literary editor, comment editor, and editorial writer at the Times, I was never aware of even indirect pressure from Rupert Murdoch. For example, during the week after Princess Diana died in 1997, I wrote every single Times editorial about a story that had captured the world’s attention. We knew that the queen, up in Balmoral, was reading and weighing every word. As the nation was gripped by Diana hysteria, even this most popular of monarchs was shaken by the unprecedented hostility toward her family. If ever there were a moment when Rupert Murdoch might have been tempted to use the Times as a vehicle for his own views about the British monarchy, this was it. But even on the day before the funeral—when the paper went to press early for the first time in two centuries so that it could be sold to the millions who had flocked to London that evening to line the route of the princess’s cortege—Murdoch did not interfere with the editorial with which I had to fill an entire column. This was—and is—no Lord Copper. When last Tuesday he told a parliamentary committee, “This is the humblest day of my life,” he meant every word.
I am not saying that press tycoons never behave irresponsibly or even dictatorially. Newspapers are not democracies. But the market is mightier than them all. The danger to democracy comes only when moguls try to translate their media interests into political power. A British government minister in both world wars and the owner of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook was also Winston Churchill’s confidant and benefactor. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has used his media empire to dominate the political stage. By contrast, Rupert Murdoch has never sought honors or office. As his reward for backing David Cameron’s Tories at the last election, he says, he received a cup of tea. The prime minister has assured Parliament that he made no promises to News Corp. executives about its bid to take over the broadcasting company BSkyB, and that assurance rings true. It is, however, a great pity that Cameron has been panicked into imposing a new regulator for the press, as the regulator will inevitably be subject to political influence.
The present hysteria obscures the fact that the most unaccountable power in the British media culture is not News Corp. but the BBC. Funded by a poll tax, driven by a leftist mindset, and ruthless in its use of monopoly power, the BBC has been using its saturation coverage of the phone-hacking story to destroy its main competitor. If the BBC succeeds in its aim of driving News Corp. out of the UK market, the British public will be the losers. There is a real danger that the case for the free market, Judeo-Christian values, and Western civilization will no longer be made in Britain.
European elites have always hated the British press, which they see as a threat. Now that they see it being muzzled, they can scarcely conceal their glee. Americans should hesitate before joining the lynch mob.