News International and the Lie of a “Free Press”

The Stench of Hypocrisy

There is something ironic in the demise of the News of the World and the crisis in the Murdoch empire. The News of the World sold papers profitably on the basis of hypocrisy. Even before Murdoch bought it in 1969 the paper traded on the pretence that it was on a “moral crusade”. What it really was doing was producing “shock, horror!” sensationalism to titillate and sell to the lowest common denominator. The salacious revelations of the lives of the famous (and not so famous) were the hardcore of the “Screws of the World” making it the biggest selling Sunday newspaper in the English-speaking world.

The News of the World may no longer be with us but hypocrisy is. We are not talking here about the low-life behaviour of News International in hacking into the phones of relatives of the victims of murder, terrorism and British imperialist adventures in Afghanistan. The stench of hypocrisy around the Palace of Westminster equals that of the Great Stink of the 1850si. That incident led to the reconstruction of London’s sewers but the hacking crisis seems to have emptied them of the rats who currently fill our screens. The sight of the Party leaders, past and present, scurrying around trying to pretend that they were not in hock to the Murdoch press is the stuff of satire. Chief hypocrite is Gordon Brown who has now claimed that he alone stood up to the power of the Murdoch Empire. He has called the “rats” in Murdoch’s pay “criminals” and now claims he has always called for an investigation of their activities but was talked out of it by top civil servants and police officers. He even stated that he had resisted News Corp’s attempt to bully him into neutering the regulator Ofcom in 2009 (the real reason he says why Murdoch turned against Labour). This might be true, but his evidence would have been more convincing if he and his wife had not consistently attended News International social and business events in the US and UK in the last three years (all following the _Sun’_s revelation of their son’s condition of cystic fibrosis). They were still attending them earlier this year.

Just like Cameron, who maintains personal friendships with Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, all the political elite cosied up to News International in order that Murdoch’s press would not turn against them (the spur to Brown’s conscience seems to date from the day the Sun decided to switch to backing the Tories). For his part, Blair was worse than either. He went all the way to the Murdoch’s Pacific pleasure island to court him to win approval for his 1997 election campaign. And as in 1992 the Sun could claim that it was us “wot won it”. It is no secret that Murdoch’s semi-monopoly of the media through the Sun and his other three titles, as well as BSkyB, has made him the arbiter of British politics since a grateful Margaret Thatcher deregulated the press and opened the way for the rise of News International in the 1980s. Many thinking workers old enough to remember Wapping in 1986 or the contribution of the Sun etc to whipping up chauvinism in the Falklands War will have had a sense of schadenfreude that the Murdoch hubris has blown up in the face of News International and the whole News Corp group.

Whilst for us the episode mainly highlights the nature of bourgeois domination through the influence the Murdoch empire has in Britain, for News Corp (which means the Murdoch family) the whole issue is a commercial and financial one which threatens its financial and political power and influence. With every tin pot politician now lining up to have a go at Murdoch (something they would not have dared to do a week before) he is scrambling to hold on to some of his influence (Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times wittily compared him to other fallen dictators as “Rupert Hosni Muburdoch”). The closing of the News of the World was prompted not by contrition but by the loss of advertising revenue which might have spread to other Murdoch titles. Many are expecting the “Sun on Sunday” to replace it when the dust settles and this would make Murdoch more money as costs will be lower. The withdrawal of the bid for all of BSkyB is not only a strategic retreat which he hopes to reverse in the future but also leaves him with the cash to buy back the shares of his US shareholders who are in full scale revolt over his disastrous losses on the Dow Jones and MySpace. Murdoch understood how to use play this real game of monopoly to strengthen his position even further. Compliant legislatures on both sides of the Atlantic aided and abetted this, as did compliant policemen. News Corp journalists must have felt that the corporation was so powerful that any steps which brought out sensational stories were legitimate or at least beyond the power of the state to stop. Now, however, as this story pans out the Murdoch spell has been broken. He may even face prosecution on either side of the Atlantic (he should have taken a leaf out of the other media mogul, Berlsuconi’s book and entered politics directly to prevent being prosecuted!). There will be as many votes in attacking him as in kowtowing to him. It is likely that there will be more calls than Miliband’s to reduce his monopolistic influence.

It is the System that Stinks

Without getting too carried away the News Corp affair reveals the rottenness of our whole ruling elite. In some ways the roots of the present political crisis are the same as the banking crisis - a love of freedom for the super rich capitalist class. Murdoch promoted the deregulation of everything which gave him carte blanche to do what he liked and the banks benefitted from the same deregulation to speculate in the financial sphere. Successive Labour and Tory governments signed up to speculation and Murdoch at the same time.

Now the whole system should be in question. Unfortunately only a minority will do this. For all the shows of moral outrage we are after all only talking about a bun fight amongst the bourgeoisie. News International journalists are not the only ones hacking phones. Murdoch is not the only anti-working class press baron sitting at high table. News Corp is just more unscrupulous and has a lot more money to spend on bribing policemen. Which policemen? Up to now ten people have already been arrested by the police since this affair broke. The Met has been asked for months if not years to investigate New International’s practices and they have refused. As yet they have not charged a single copper even though it must be a very small number who actually handle such sensitive evidence as victims’ phones. There may be a good reason for this dilatory behaviour as the resignation of the Metropolitan Police’s top two men reveal. The Daily Telegraph had revealed that Sir Paul Stephenson

enjoyed a five-week stay for free at the luxurious Champneys health farm in Tring which was promoted by the former deputy editor of the News of the World.

This was Neil Wallis. Apparently Sir Paul has enjoyed the hospitality of News International 14 times since the scandal first started to emerge some 4 years or so ago. He has now resigned but the issue does not end there. Wallis also got a job as a consultant to the Met whilst another News of the World journalist was a translator for the police. The former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman (who had to resign in 2007 over expenses fiddles) and was the most senior detective until then investigating the phone hacking claims, on April 25 2006

had dinner with Andy Coulson and Neil Wallis, both of whom have been arrested in the past 10 days … The dinner is just one of a series Mr Hayman, then the Metropolitan Police's assistant commissioner, enjoyed at the expense of News International.

The result of Hayman’s investigation was that only one private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, and only one News of the World journalist, Clive Goodman were gaoled. Goodman claimed, with obvious validity, that he was not the only one doing it, but after News International paid him thousands in compensation he then said no more. Andy Hayman now writes a column for The Times. But it goes on. When the assistant commissioner John Yates came up before parliament in early July he admitted that the 11,000 documents relating to phone hacking lay in 6 bin bags for over fours years in the basement of Scotland Yard and no one had ever looked at them. He had ended the investigation into phone hacking without looking at a single piece of this evidence. But then it did emerge that he also dined at News Corps expense with the arrested men at least five times. Small wonder he too has resigned. The problem our rulers have is that indicting News Corp is a bit like indicting themselves. For this reason alone incompetence will probably be substituted for corruption on the Met’s charge sheet - that is, if anyone actually gets around to investigating them ...

A Free Press?


Of course the undermining of one of the pillars of the British state is of serious concern to our rulers. Ed Miliband is now calling for the reduction of News International’s market share from 20% (his maths are poor - its nearer 40%) as it is “dangerous for democracy”. Murdoch himself “repents” (smell the hypocrisy!) in his apology published in all his rivals papers that:

Our business was founded on the idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society. We need to live up to this.

This is sanctimonious rubbish. Under modern monopoly capitalist conditions there can be no such thing as a free press. Under capitalism we are all to a certain extent free but some (i.e. billionaires) are more free than others. In the past the bourgeoisie used to have to ban workers’ papers (Socialist newspapers were banned in Germany from 1878 to 1890). In “liberal” Britain the bourgeoisie were slightly more subtle. As more workers began to learn to read, despite the lack of education, in the early nineteenth century the capitalists began to worry. They thus introduced a stamp tax to put any newspaper with a working class standpoint beyond the price of most wage earners. Workers clubbed together to buy papers but there was no question of an independent workers’ paper. After the defeat of Chartism, however, the British ruling class realised that abolishing stamp duty would allow the publication of more pro-capitalist popular papers to reach the masses. One of their more perceptive, Thomas Milner-Gibson, [MP (both Tory and Liberal) and President of the Association for the Repeal of Taxes on Knowledge] wrote

… a cheap press in the hands of men of good moral character, of respectability and of capital [would give them] the power of gaining access by newspapers, by faithful record of the facts, to the minds of the working classes.

Free speech so long a pillar of popular radicalism was this one of the weapons taken up and used by capital to eradicate it. It was the beginning of a culture organised by capital for the working class. In the nineteenth century Britain this was to be one dominated by nationalism and imperialism. Murdoch in creating a populist capitalist press has thus only been following a long tradition. Press barons like Lord Harmsworth (Daily Mail) and Lord Northcliffe (Daily Express) got there long before.ii It is no accident that these mass circulation dailies (along with the Daily Mirror) were all founded in the last years before the First World War. And when it comes to direct political interference the News Corp papers are true heirs of Harmsworth. It was his publication four days before the 1924 General Election of the forgery know as the Zinoviev letter (which supposedly encouraged the Communist Party of Great Britain to prepare for revolution in the event of a Labour victory) which is credited with bringing down the first Labour Government. And when it comes to anti-immigrant atrocities nothing has yet beaten the Daily Mail campaign against Jewish victims of Nazism. In 1938 they were asking

Why do we let in this army of spongers?... So many asylum seekers are pouring into this country… to milk the system… many are involved in criminal activity.

The joys of a free press indeed. Free to write the lies that suit the capitalist class. And little different from what today’s gutter press write about the victims of oppression who seek asylum here. But gutter or otherwise, the ruling class get the press body they need. This does not have to be part of a conscious plot. In monopoly conditions only those with deep pockets can keep a paper going. Murdoch has been losing some £40 millions a year on The Times for years but he holds on to it as part of his power play to ensure that he can dominate the British press scene. Most people will have forgotten the Sunday Correspondent which lasted just over a year in 1990 or Eddie Shah’s Today which lasted almost 10 years but in the end went bust and was sold to Murdoch in 1997 (the Sun now uses its offices in Wapping). These papers were backed by millions but still could not be made into going concerns. It’s an enterprise only for those who can afford it. The commercial and political interests of capital naturally complement one another. And as usual Marx summed it up best

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.

And all the hypocritical hand-wringing of politicians who have suddenly found a moral compass will try to keep it that way.


(1) The Great Stink occurred in 1858 when the Thames was so filled with sewage that the stench led to the suspension of Parliament. As it was also then believed that the miasma from the stench caused cholera it led the authorities to begin a scheme for treating London’s sewage properly.

(2) This section is largely based on an article “Social Democracy and the Working Class in Britain” in Internationalist Communist Review 11 (1993). It is not on our website but a (very) few copies remain (£3 in the UK including postage).


Was wondering where you'd gone, but am glad you are back with new stuff. An article like the above must require a lot of research and you work very hard. The rottenness of our whole ruling elite is, as you say, revealed in the Murdoch squalor. Glad to see the back of him (if he's gone) bur of course he is easily replaced. There's no shortage of rottenness among the bourgeoisie. And the cartoon is good too.

More than likely most if not all newspapers are/were involved in phone hacking in the desperate bid to secure increasing levels of advertising revenue. This instatiable desire for higher revenue regardless of thhe social cost is the hallmark of capiitalism. So I suppose other editors are a bit more shaky now that Murdoch has been uncovered.

One point worth making i think is that while the so called free press and police are going to take a bit of stick over their practices you can bet that twin of corruption the MP's are going to use this episode to try to polish their image. The last few years has seen Mp's authority diminish now here they are presenting themselves as choir boys n girls and hoping that the working class will somehow forgive thhem their past misdemenours. We shouldn't and we won't the whole rotten edifice of capitalism is rotten to the core and needs replacing by a communist system on a global scale.

Just as the ancien regiime in France in the 18th century was overthrown then todays capitalist ancien regime needs replacing through a consciouss working class revolution which will be free of corruption for it will be a truly democratic system based on an international network of soviets.

Perhaps we should have pointed out that the cartoon by Banx is from the Financial Times of all places. This is the same astute cartoonist who, when the speculative bubble burst, did a cartoon of woman charity worker on a street corner holding out a collection box with the single word "Capitalism" on it. Exactly one hundred years after Robert Tressell's classic workers who accept austerity in 2011 are the new "ragged trousered philanthropists" who are asked to donate to save the system.

Expressions like "the great stink", "Wapping liars", and "screws of the world" are delicious. So is the cartoon of the charity worker with her box collecting for "Capitalism". This surely deserves wider dissemination. Have you got a copy of it you can put up here? "Ragged trousered philanthropists" is a mouthful, and despite the book, not the easiest idea to cotton on to. The collection box labelled "Capitalism" is brilliantly stated. What a shame it was confined to the Financial Times - would the haute-bourgeoisie really find this funny? - it should have been in The Sun where workers could see it. But, hang on, the bourgeoisie wouldn't want workers to see it, would they? It makes it's point too well!