Something Is Rotten...

Forget Andy Coulson. If you can, forget phone-hacking. The real scandal is how senior politicians - and police officers - allowed themselves to be used by a ruthless media tycoon for his own commercial ends. And if you think it's all over, it's not.

What do you call an organisation, originally based in Sicily, that uses bribes and threats to buy influence and power?

Here's a clue: it begins with the letter M.

Here's another question: Whom did the Labour MP Tom Watson, at a parliamentary select committee hearing in November 2011, call "the first mafia boss in history who didn't know he was running a criminal enterprise"?

Again, the answer begins with the letter M. That's M for Murdoch. In this case, James Murdoch, the hapless son hung out to dry.

Forget Andy Coulson. If you can, forget phone-hacking. The real scandal is how senior politicians - and police officers - allowed themselves to be used by a ruthless media tycoon for his own commercial ends. And if you think it's all over, it's not.

Why is Michael Gove still palsy-walsy with Rupert Murdoch, who used to employ him in his days as a journalist on The Times? Why did Ed Miliband pose for that idiotic photo holding a copy of The Sun? The answer is simplicity itself: because they fear the power of Murdoch, and the damage he could do to their political careers.

I do not claim that either Gove or Miliband, or any of the other politicians who have snuggled up to Mr Murdoch, are doing, or have done, anything illegal. But it is frankly a disgrace that even after everything we've learned about the poisonous impact that the Murdoch empire has had on British public life, men such as these cannot resist the lure of the Murdoch imprimatur.

Two Labour prime ministers, Blair and Brown, a Conservative prime minister and a Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, Cameron and Osborne, have all succumbed. Two years ago, even Mr Cameron had to admit, in the House of Commons: "We all did too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch." (He meant politicians on all sides, and he was right.)

So when you ask how the industrial-scale phone-hacking at the News of the World could go on for so long, undetected and unpunished, here's your answer. Murdoch and his minions had bought immunity. They paid police officers for information, they hired former police officers as highly-paid columnists, and they gathered dirt on senior politicians with which they threatened to ruin careers. With cover like that, who needs to bother about the niceties of the law?

The Labour MP Tom Watson, who appears not to know the meaning of the word fear, defined the mafia during his questioning of James Murdoch in 2011 as "a group of people who are bound together by secrecy, who together pursue their group's business objectives with no regard for the law, using intimidation, corruption and general criminality."

He asked Mr Murdoch to agree that it was also "an accurate description of News International in the UK." James Murdoch replied: "Absolutely not. Frankly, I think that that is offensive and it is not true."

The evidence, alas, is on Mr Watson's side, not Mr Murdoch's. What's more, even if Andy Coulson, former Murdoch editor and former Cameron media supremo, does end up in jail, the capo di tutti capi, the boss of bosses, is having the last laugh.

As the hacking scandal detonated beneath the Murdoch media empire, the boss was asked what his priority was. He turned to Rebekah Brooks and said: "This one." So when the jury acquitted her on all charges on Tuesday, he would have been entitled to gloat. Mission accomplished.

According to Nick Davies of The Guardian, the indefatigable reporter who did more than anyone to blow this sordid scandal wide open, the millions that the Murdoch empire spent on defending both Brooks and Coulson bought so much lawyer power into the courtroom that "lawyers and court reporters who spend their working lives at the Old Bailey agreed they had never seen anything like it, this multimillion-pound Rolls-Royce engine purring through the proceedings."

More than two-thirds of the estimated £100million-plus cost of the legal proceedings were paid by the Murdoch machine to defend his former executives. And yet - get this - in the words of a Financial Times headline on Wednesday: "Murdoch comes out on top despite lawyers' bills."

The FT reported that the share price of News Corp stock actually rose in New York after the Old Bailey verdicts were announced, and that, according to Forbes magazine, the Murdoch family's net wealth has risen from $7.5billion before the hacking crisis broke to $13.5billion this year. How depressing is that?

So where does this leave Sir Brian Leveson, his inquiry into press standards, and the regulation of the press? To me, the entire Leveson process was designed to provide the wrong answer to the wrong question. The hacking scandal wasn't primarily a failure of press regulation - it was, above all, a dismal failure of policing.

The police knew what the News of the World was doing, and turned a blind eye. It's hard not to conclude that the reason is that too many of them were far too close to the Murdoch papers. David Cameron himself was warned of the stench emanating from News International - and he ignored it. It cannot be said too often: it was journalists, specifically on The Guardian and the New York Times - who blew this thing wide open, not the police, not the judiciary, not our elected representatives at Westminster.

So if we want to ensure that future Murdochs have less power over future prime ministers and future police officers, we need to change the law on media ownership. Perhaps the dawning of the digital age will eventually destroy media moguls' power - yet for the time being, I fancy a headline in the Sun or the Daily Mail still has more potency than a 140-character tweet.

Yes, journalists on the News of the World (and almost certainly on other papers, too) behaved appallingly and unforgiveably in ripping open the private lives of people who had every right to expect their private lives to remain private.

So yes, by all means let us improve the way people who are badly treated by newspapers can obtain redress. But surely it can't be right, even at arm's length, to involve politicians, the very people who have again and again showed themselves so easily tempted by the goodies available in the press barons' troughs, anywhere near the process.

As Suzanne Moore put it in yesterday's Guardian: "In a healthy democracy, the relationship between journalists and politicians should be one of mutual inquiry verging on disdain. You cannot legislate for that any more than you can vet people for integrity. We can, though, tell it like it is."

Oh, and if you think Mr Murdoch and his papers have finally learned the error of their ways, just pause for one moment to consider the Sun's triumphant headline the day after the acquittal of its titian-haired former editor.

"Great day for red tops." No change there, then.


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