THERE is nothing the British love as much as a juicy political scandal, and I flew into London from Karachi just when one was breaking. It involves the media, the police, celebrities and major politicians. As its centre is Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate everybody hates and fears in equal measure.Over the last few years, stories have emerged about The News of the World, Britain's biggest selling Sunday tabloid and part of the Murdoch empire, using illegal means to obtain stories to feed its readers' insatiable appetite for celebrity gossip. The newspaper had been hiring private investigators to hack into the voice mail of well-known people to obtain sensational scoops.When the story first broke, a journalist and a private detective were jailed, but the police declared that there was insufficient evidence to pursue the case any further. Nevertheless, a slew of celebrities, including Hugh Grant, came forward to charge that they had been targeted by the tabloid. Andy Coulson, the paper's editor when the scandal first surfaced, has consistently denied all knowledge, and insisted that rogue reporters had been responsible. However, he has never made clear how payments of tens of thousands of pounds could have been authorised without his approval. His arrest on Friday came as no surprise.
Bizarrely, Coulson was made David Cameron's Director of Communications when the coalition government came into power last year. Earlier, he had advised the Conservatives during their election campaign. When the heat increased, and his position became untenable, he was forced to resign. But his appointment is now a huge embarrassment to Cameron, as is the PM's friendship with Rebekah Brooks, Coulson's predecessor, and now chief executive at News International, the Murdoch company that owns the tabloid. She is now in the eye of the storm, with demands that she resign immediately.
What brought the long-simmering scandal to a head was the emergence of information that not only was the phone of a kidnapped girl hacked into, so were those of family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. While many Brits took a lenient view of the invasion of privacy of the rich and the famous, they were outraged to learn of this breach in the case of a girl whose dead body was found months later. And to tap the phones of the bereaved was an act nobody was willing to condone.
For a long time, Rupert Murdoch has been widely viewed by journalists as a giant squid sitting on the face of the media, starving it of oxygen. The Australian-born magnate, now a US citizen, has aggressively acquired newspapers, TV channels and radio stations around the world. His Sky TV spans the globe, and his generally conservative newspapers shape public opinion in a way few media groups have succeeded in doing. But it is his Fox Channel that has redefined TV journalism with its brand of vicious right-wing commentary.
For years, politicians have sucked up to him, seeking his support. Tony Blair was particularly shameless in currying favour with Murdoch. Cameron, too, sought his blessings before the general elections. No politician dared take the risk of crossing him for fear that News International would turn its powerful guns on him or her.
Such inordinate power was often seen to be dangerous in a democracy, but few challenged the mighty Murdoch empire. The one exception in Britain was the Guardian: like a bulldog with Murdoch's leg between its teeth, the daily clung on grimly. Every once in a while, it would come out with a fresh disclosure, adding to the pressure on the police to re-open its investigation. There was a time when its revelations were dismissed as a way of attacking its rival, The Times, another of Murdoch's newspapers. Indeed, Alan Johnson, the Labour home secretary when the story first broke five years ago, said: “I have to tell you that the atmosphere, the mood, the public mood, the mood elsewhere was this was an obsession of one newspaper. Let us praise the Guardian for doggedly staying on this case…”
One immediate fallout of the scandal was that a number of companies announced they were withdrawing advertisements from the tabloid. In the past few months, the newspaper has paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds in out-of-court settlements to some of those whose phones had been hacked. More than the financial loss, the embarrassment for News International has been huge. In a pre-emptive strike to stave off further litigation and a sharp drop in circulation, Murdoch announced that he was closing down the 168-year old newspaper.
Even more importantly, perhaps the scandal will torpedo a controversial proposal for News International to buy up the outstanding shares in BSkyB, the holding company that owns Sky TV. This operation has become hugely profitable, sending its TV packages — as well as phone and broadband services — into millions of British homes. Although Murdoch owned some 39 per cent of the company, he wants total control, and his application has been pending with the government for months.
Many have opposed the proposal on the grounds that it would give one individual far too much clout. However, it was widely feared that the Conservative culture minister tasked with reviewing the application would not wish to antagonise Murdoch by turning him down. But with the ongoing scandal, one MP said News International would not be granted a licence to run a minicab service, leave alone buy up BSkyB.
In a world where the rich and the powerful get away with everything, including bringing down the banking system, it is deeply satisfying to see one of the mighty fall, or at least stumble. Andy Coulson has been thrown to the wolves, and Murdoch's damage-control machine will offer vast sums in compensation, attempting to draw a line under the whole wretched business. In all probability, the BSkyB deal will be put on hold for a while until the scandal is forgotten.
But meanwhile, here's to the Guardian and its team who have made this moment of schadenfreude so delectable.