There’s no doubt that the News International hacking scandal has sent shockwaves reverberating around Westminster, the media and the public at large. Few can question the significance of the Murdochs appearing before a Select Committee of MPs for the first time ever, or the spate of resignations of leading political, media and police figures. The constant daily revelations that fill the televisions, newspapers and online make it almost impossible to predict what the full extent of the fallout from this latest scandal will be. But one thing is for sure, the spotlight being shone on the murky corridors of power are creating a seismic shift in the role of the media, the relationship between government and the press and expectations of scrutiny and accountability.
It’s been clear for some time that the huge power wielded by media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch has been a key driver of politician’s behaviour. How many times were the Labour government accused, publicly and privately, of running scared of headlines in the Sun or the Daily Mail?
The huge public outcry over the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone and numerous other instances of corrupt or unethical behaviour highlights the latent dissatisfaction with the dominance of our press over public policy. Twitter, facebook and other social media did not create this – though they have provided a useful tool for people to express publicly their disaffection.
We may be witnessing the first steps in the dismantling (or destruction?) of the Murdoch global media empire. Time will tell. However, what’s not clear is, if this is the end for Murdoch, what will come next? The current focus is on the News of the World and News International, but we are kidding ourselves if we believe that they alone act in this unsavoury way.
How confident should we be that the police and Parliament will get to the bottom of what really happened? The powerful have much to lose from radical change to the way we regulate the press and hold our politicians to account. I am not convinced that we will ever really know what happened. Of more concern however, is whether the public outcry over the apparent collusion between police, politicians and the press can be sustained to bring about real lasting fundamental change to our democracy.
The government is pursuing a policy of transparency and open government. And who could oppose openness? However the limit of their ambition appears to be transparency as a means to an end. We need to be far bolder and more ambitious. Accountability should be our goal – not just endless information and data that is impossible to make sense of.
I am yet to hear the blueprint for the accountability of our elected representatives in parliament, or how the private sector will be adequately regulated in the new era of transparency. What happens when transparency comes up against another of the government’s pet projects – cutting red tape (aka reducing regulation)? Which of these ambitions will take precedence when they push up against each other?
If those campaigning for real change and greater accountability (of public servants and private companies) can harness the public disaffection then there is a real chance we can avoid one media tycoon simply replacing another. However, as we saw with the banking crisis, public anger does not necessarily lead to change. Despite huge outrage over the way the banks had behaved, this did not translate into popular calls for something different to replace what had gone before. The moment passed and we end up with minimal change packaged up as something substantially different.
It’s time we started to turn our attention to developing an alternative system of democratic transparency, corporate governance and regulation and establish a clear idea of ‘what good looks like’ for the future.