Confidence in the British establishment has been dramatically shaken for the third time in 3 years. Commenting on the phone hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and News International Labour MP Chris Bryant said ‘The whole political system has failed’. The crisis has revealed some systemic and cultural flaws that have led to an unholy relationship between three institutions: the Politicians, the Press and the Police.
Sadly, looking at previous institutional crises, there can be little confidence that the promised government inquiries will solve the central problems. More likely they will do as much as is needed to pacify the public, until such time as the issue moves into the backs of people’s minds. There have been no substantial measures that would prevent as repeat of the financial crisis of 2008, which evolved into a global economic crisis and now a currency crisis. Similarly, public confidence in politicians has not recovered from the 2009 MP’s expenses scandal, which revealed a culture of greed that existed in the political class, and of systems of accountability of the country’s political system.
The Real Scandal
Whilst there is rightly a collective disgust about the revelation that employees of the News of the World hacked into the phones of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the relatives of the 7/7 bombing victims, the issues that have emerged are far more fundamental than actions of any one publication; or even of the means that tabloid newspapers use to peddle their filthy gossip ridden stories.
The real scandal is the relationship of the political class and the corporate media; and the culture and systems that exist in secular capitalist societies that allow this unhealthy relationship to flourish.
A Free Press?
The defenders of the media argue that a free press is one of the hallmarks of a democratic and free society.
But the Press in democratic societies, as this crisis has illustrated, are not ‘free’ or independent. They might not be run by the state but they are beholden to their owners’ interests – the capitalist class. Or, as the early 20th century journalist Hannan Swaffer put it “Freedom of the press in Britain means the freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to”.
The businessmen or corporations who dominate the media seek to exert their power to affect public opinion and influence political decision making in order to maximize their own interests. The current News International bid to take over BSkyB is but one example. The deregulation of the media, the widening of satellite service, advertising and competition rules – all of these and other matters are important for this section of the market.
Politicians court big media in order to win favourable coverage and support at times of elections. ‘”It’s The Sun Wot Won It” was the infamous headline boasting that Murdoch’s newspaper won the 1992 general election for the Conservative party – reinforcing the desire of politicians to please Murdoch (and other business sectors) first and their parties and the general public later.
Role of media and role of government
The media, which has a role in accounting and scrutinising the political class, has become more of a vehicle for lobbying politicians, and manipulating public opinion (sometimes on behalf of politicians). Their need to look after the interests of their industry specifically and the corporate sector generally trumps this accounting role. (Of course, we are talking here about the sector in general terms and not in the case of individual journalists or publications).
Politicians and the government have a role that is supposed to address the issues affecting the ordinary people in society, as much as anything else. But when political parties in democratic societies rely on the business community and wealthy donors for funding – and their electoral chances are affected by this backing – they will undoubtedly prioritise their interests over those of ordinary people – especially when politicians can be vilified or ridiculed if they go against their interests.
The toxic mix of politics and money in the democratic system increases the propensity for corruption, as politicians open themselves to be courted by business interests. Fund raising, lobbying, the fear of being negatively portrayed, the relationship with vested interests (business and landowners) and the media all make corruption more likely. The long-standing relationship between media and politics exposed by this crisis shows how their respective roles have become seriously undermined in the capitalist system.
No accountability by bedfellows
The press sees itself as one of the institutions that account politicians; and government has some regulatory responsibility over the media. So, to find them so intimate with one another, with so many conflicted interests – the police taking a cut of money in helping newspapers make profits and politicians representing the interests of media corporations in return for valuable political support – is deeply disturbing.
In this case Cameron, like Blair and Brown before him, courted Murdoch, befriended Rebekah Brooks – the former editor of the NOTW and News International’s chief executive – and employed Andy Coulson, the NOTW former editor who had to resign from the newspaper over the affair. Cameron and Miliband have both recently addressed News International meetings; they attended Murdoch’s summer party. Even as recently as June 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron visited News International’s office, with Rupert Murdoch himself present for a closed-door conference, at a time where his government is looking at the Murdoch bid to take over BSkyB.
This affair illustrates all too clearly that what is called commonly called democracy is actually an oligarchy – an elite liberal political class that elects representatives from amongst its own and accounts according to one set of interests.
Profit Interest, not public interests, highlights a moral crisis
The Press defends such practices saying they are investigating in the ‘public interest’. But all too often a yearning for profits in a competitive industry trumps principle in their activities. It is stories about the private lives of footballers and movie stars that sell papers and the ‘public interest’ defence is stretched beyond credibility in many cases.
The political commentator Peter Hitchens summarized the dilemma like this, arguing that the press exposes and restrains the ‘corruption of power’
: ‘To be able to do so, it must be free. To be free, it must be independent. To be independent, it must be commercially successful. To be commercially successful, it must appeal to a large audience. To appeal to that audience, it must to some extent follow public taste. And public taste has got worse as our schools and morals have declined.’
Not only has the media made its profits through cultivating and reinforcing these ‘public tastes’, it has – along with their willing accomplices in the form of the political class – encouraged the corruption of power in which they both share.
In capitalist societies, pursuit of profit dominates all other motives. They are societies where a substantial number would regard retaining one’s integrity at the expense of going bankrupt as foolish or unimpressive.
This is shocking in itself, as it suggests there are no other principles – nothing else that people will sacrifice their material interests in order to uphold – other than the pursuit of money (which largely how the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is understood today).
Truthfulness, accuracy, standards – once commodities that retained a value in the world – can all now be sacrificed at the altar of profit and material interest.
It would be wrong to suggest that there are no journalists or business people who do not act out of principle or altruistic motive, or all politicians are corrupt. However, these have ended up in a minority in a society dominated by material values, coupled with a competitive business arena.
Capitalist secular societies that have banished religion to the private domain increasingly act as if they have similarly banished ethics and morality; with only the law to act as a check and balance on the pursuit of profit; with even adherence to the law no longer a restraint on the pursuit of profit.
Glen Mulcare, the private investigator hired by the NOTW who did the phone hacking, said “Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results. I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically. But, at the time, I didn’t understand that I had broken the law at all.”
To consider violation of people’s privacy by breaking into their personal space and spying on them as pushing ‘the limits ethically’ and ‘moral grey areas’ shows just how a society that has become centered around the pursuit of money destroys a moral compass.
But what alternative
Today’s world is dominated by the Murdochs, Soroses, Ashcrofts, Mitals and Deripaskas.
It is a world where those with wealth and power determine policies, laws and even morality.
It is hardly surprising, given that this is the apparent price for success in free market terms, that people are looking for alternatives.
Muslims in the Muslim world are looking for an alternative to despotism and exploitation that is, to a very large extent, a consequence of market forces [both in terms of globalization and colonialism].
But what is more striking is that Muslims – and many others – living in capitalist countries are looking for ways to insulate and immunize themselves from society’s overwhelming materialist culture and values.
In both cases Muslims, and increasing numbers of others, realize Islam offers a promise of a different worldview; for it is a way of life that encourage people to think about the consequences of their actions.
It is a way of life that develops – in Islamic societies strict systems of accounting government – not only through public assemblies but also through judicial means. It does not abolish the instinct to seek wealth, but moderates it in many ways, and keeps a strict check on how that influences politics and politicians. It encourages media, scholars, jurists, political parties and individuals to maintain their distance from the ruling class so that they can ‘speak the word of truth’ to authority. Indeed, amongst Islamic scholars it was a culture that if one of them was seen in the company of the ruler his integrity was compromised.
Even the role of media to account and scrutinize and question ruling power is seen as distinct from the role (that the western tabloid media sees for itself) of investigating and exposing peoples’ personal wrongdoings – something, it could be argued does not prevent such wrongs, but in the long term makes them more socially acceptable.
For those who seek an escape from a world dominated by the religion of money, there is an alternative in Islam.