The British Phone-Hacking Scandal

I’ve been watching the phone-hacking scandal closely, even to the point of reading the Guardian’s timeline of the parliamentary debate last Wednesday (20th July) every few minutes or so. I don’t agree with those in parliament who suggested that “the people” are tired of it. This people most certainly is not. It says a lot about modern Britain. So, what is this lot that it says about modern Britain? Here, a beginning.

First, a preamble. I am mature enough to feel the need to start racing kids on their bicycles on the street and to regard the term “fogey” as an approbation (but I will correct you if you prepend the term “old”). And to say whatever I like about people under 40 (for example, Mr. J. Murdoch; see below).

I read an article in the Independent this morning in which it says


On two occasions, James Murdoch and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks were given confidential defence briefings on Afghanistan and Britain’s strategic defence review by the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox. A further briefing was held with Ms Brooks, Rupert Murdoch and the Sunday Times editor John Witherow.

and I think of what Abe Lincoln might have said: “Government of the press, by the press, for the press, shall not perish from the earth.” There is just more, and more, and more of it. And then more.

Newspapers are essential. Let me rephrase: Good newspapers are essential. I think the British press has given up its former partial role as informer and arbiter of social reality (I am not quite sure how to phrase it – the experience of reading a newspaper article and knowing you were getting objective and moderately complete information through your reading it) – a role which papers such as the NYT, Washington Post, and in Germany FAZ and SZ still play, and which at least The Times used to play in GB and no longer does (for example, The Times’s extremely poor and quite poorly-opinionated coverage of the Air France South Atlantic accident, as compared with that of the NYT). Now, the Brit/American Roger Cohen, who writes columns for the NYT and is almost always worth reading, had an interesting perspective. A week ago, he argued that Rupert Murdoch had been good for the British press, on the basis that he had kept it alive and thriving at a point at which it could well have died (he suggests that The Times would likely have disappeared were it not for Murdoch). I think much of that may well be right – it is hard to see how the newspaper business could have survived, given the then-demands of the printers’ unions, and Murdoch single-handedly changed that situation. But the daily printed word seems to have become much less trustworthy in the UK in a way in which, for example, the best newspapers elsewhere (NYT, WP, SZ, FAZ) have not. Even the WSJ, another paper which can be argued to have been Murdoch-rescued, has not succumbed. There just seems to be something about the British press in which I suspect Murdoch&family to have significant influence over content. I don’t have proof, just suspicion.

On to government. Everyone notes wrily the French “corporate state” being run by ENiAcs, but few people have noted how Britain has reverted to being run by Oxbridge graduates – this time, indeed, by people who were once what we used to call “little rich kids”, former members of the Bullingdon club (look it up in Wikipedia). Indeed, five members of the current government went to my very college. Now, I am moderately attached to and supportive of my college, but I am also very aware of how one’s upbringing affects one’s attitude to life and am sceptical that people who were as financially and socially privileged as some of these were can understand, even begin to solve, issues to do with Britain’s poor and underprivileged, or the structural-economic issues involved with Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham, or with Scotland, indeed with any parts except London and enclaves of wealthy people. Or even figure out what is right and what is wrong with the NHS, or with state secondary education, neither of which any of them have ever had to experience.

I believe that the NHS and the state education of the sort I received are two of the great achievements in Britain of the last century. And I do have personal experience of three health systems, and three university systems, as well as intimate knowledge of features of school systems, over decades in three very different countries – and of course three newspaper systems – so I like to think my perspective is informed.

The NHS is being slowly destroyed, I think, through successive poor policy and management over decades. But I don’t have more than this to say here.

I think that state secondary school education has been on the down for decades. I entered the English university system from school; it was then scholastic-inclined and elitist, with intake some very few percent of the population. After some culture shock at then entering a system, the University of California, which took some few percent of a very different population, I came gradually to see the enormous advantages of a higher-education system which addressed over 50% of school leavers (in US universities and community colleges, in almost all of which one could do the first year or two of any university coursework at – then – no cost).

So I had hopes, for a decade or two, for the English university system, but perceiving the conditions under which my English colleagues work, and what has happened to courses and coursework and now student fees, I can’t any longer say that I think things have improved. What I can say is that for younger academics at the start of their careers the system is still superior, more humane and more encouraging, than most or all of those in continental Europe, or even the US. So that remains a beacon of hope (sorry for the cliche). But for the general British university situation, I can’t see that the privileged rich kids in government can have much personal insight into the matters that count: who should be going to university, why, and under what conditions. Without personal insight and experience, I don’t see how one can distinguish policies that might work from those that won’t. I can’t see, for example, any 18 year old who has been trying to manage a couple of quid a week pocket money being able to make a well-informed decision that going into debt for £27,000 (£9,000 per year) plus living expenses is going to be at all worth it for hisher future life. Maybe so for, say, law, microeconomics or engineering, but not for, say, Eng. lit., Latin&Greek, French lit., German lit., philosophy, or those other courses of study which one might imagine would give a future lawyer, politician or civil servant some perspective on the variety of life with which they will be dealing and train some important skills such as producing a coherent argument, and being able to write decently. If such a choice had been presented to me, I would probably have carried on working at the CEGB (anyone remember them?) and taken engineering classes in night school. In contrast, I can see that choice being easily made, not only for British rich kids, but also for many or most young Americans. Let me just say that money plays a different role there; enough that it was part of my culture shock when I got there.

So, back to the scandal, what is significant in this one?

1. The extent to which it has become clear how Britain is run by elites, many of whom appear to move in the same social circles. At least Blair used to hob-nob with rock stars, most of which are self-made people who were not financially privileged when they started, and probably still remember what life was like with mum and dad trying to figure out if the family could afford to go on holiday that year, rather than what fun they used to have in the Bullingdon club. But one cannot imagine either him or Brown regularly lunching and partying with, say, the Gallagher brothers.

2. The extent to which it has become clear how British life is influenced by those elites, and in what direction. You’ll find articles about Paris Hilton’s, Lindsay Lohan’s and Britney Spears’s latest jaunts in the NYT also, but you will also find technical details of GE Boiling Water Reactors and why they are susceptible to this-and-that. The German press will point you to technical documents of the German regulator and safety watchdog available on the WWW. Whereas one will search the British press fruitlessly for any details concerning British nuclear power plants.

3. The extent to which the police appear to have been influenced by those elites. When I grew up, the bobby and the doctor were examples of public servants who performed useful functions largely independently of anything and anybody else (although of course there were always corrupt bobbies and incompetent doctors). Wednesday, I read through the Home Affairs Select Committee report and was astonished at the police behavior, which appears to be collusive to an extraordinary extent at high levels. But maybe those who have actually lived in Britain in the last two decades are less astonished?

4. The extent to which the old trope “I’m the top guy. I didn’t know anything about what was going on lower down” is nowadays used as a defence of one’s (in)actions. Thirty years ago, it was the major reason for resigning! (As indeed Messrs Yates and Stephenson have done – so it still is to some extent. And Hayman got hammered by the Home Affairs Select Committee when he tried to use it, so someone still remembers the “old days”.)

5. I am, though, pleased to see the effectiveness of Select Committees. James Murdoch saying he had been advised by his consultants to tell the truth (oh, well, nice to know you get advice from wise people, Mr. Murdoch!). And two days later Crone and Myler contradicting his “defence” as in point 4. Indeed, it is hard to believe any business person agreeing to settle a privacy-invasion case for ten times the going rate (Mosley won £60,000 against the NOTW in court at about the same time, and even that was up to ten times the award of many successful privacy-invasion suits), plus full legal expenses, without asking why. I suspect that makes James Murdoch toast, business-wise, whatever the truth turns out to be. I also suspect he may have to work a little to stay out of jail, but see point 3 above. So even though they may be pocketing taxpayers’ money to have their moats cleaned, some politicians are apparently still able to do a decent job on other people’s misdemeanors.

6. There are the kinds of things which either makes one regret that one didn’t go into politics, or very relieved that one stayed out. The financial collapse three years ago (which, by the way, I though was brilliantly handled by Gordon Brown, alone amongst Western leaders). But there are also the kind of things which lead me to general despair. This is one of those. It’s a “time to emigrate” moment. Except that I did, and now I’m running out of places. Canada? It’s cold and there’s that snorting elephant to the south. Australia? I’m not sure I have the energy to learn another new language. New Zealand? All those sheep! But I’d feel at home with the earthquakes.

7. Maybe it’s time to form a new political party for those who work hard, pay their taxes, and expect them to go somewhere useful like health care, care of the elderly, education, effective oversight of finance and critical infrastructure, public transportation, and effective urban reinvigoration. (Germany at least gets the last two right.) Wait a minute! Didn’t we have one of those? What happened to it?

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