The phone hacking scandal has all the usual elements of a media firestorm; the feverish atmosphere, the pace, the stream of allegations, each one worse than the last, and the righteous indignation from politicians and commentators. There’s only one thing missing – the Murdoch papers, for they are now on the other end of it.
When these stories gather such momentum, there comes a point when those facing the allegations are left with few defences. Celebrities in sex scandals, ministers proposing to change sentencing laws or politicians claiming expenses are best advised to keep quiet because anything they say will be drowned out by the chorus of condemnation.
As yet, there is no concrete proof that News International papers illegally obtained Gordon Brown’s son’s medical details or hacked into the phones of 9/11 victims but that doesn’t matter. Over the past 48 hours these allegations have come to be seen as true. The Sun can print its denial but no-one is listening. Look at the comments underneath. People have already made up their minds.
This is the media climate that Rupert Murdoch played no small part in creating. The way these stories are reported, the way they gather momentum, the commentary around them and the disdain for those on the receiving end follows a model largely designed by the Murdoch papers and followed by everyone else.
Just as interesting is the tipping point. Few people cared much about this story until evidence emerged that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked. Pressure piled on when police revealed that relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and victims of the 7/7 bombings had been targeted too.
These are all causes that Rupert Murdoch’s papers had made their own. Woe betide any politician who failed to back British troops, or who appeared soft on terrorism, criminals and child abusers. Anyone deviating from the Murdoch line was fair game.
Whether or not the boss or his lieutenants believed in any of these causes is irrelevant. Adopting them was a commercial decision. They are stories that tap into people’s emotions; fear, anger and sympathy for the victims. That sells newspapers. Stoke up those emotions and people become more involved in the story – which makes them buy more papers.
Yet, suddenly, the papers that had moralised about these issues for so long stood accused of hacking the phones of terrorism victims, the families of dead soldiers and, worst of all, a young girl murdered by a paedophile. All the emotions that the Murdoch papers had fed on for years were turned against them, with added rage at their sheer hypocrisy.
And once the public is outraged, the politicians get outraged pretty quickly too. Today, MPs, most of whom wouldn’t have said boo to a Sun reporter two weeks ago, will troop into their lobbies to vote against Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB. It will probably be the closest thing to a unanimous vote in Parliament’s recent history.
The Murdoch press set the standards for media outrage in this country and it fanned the public fear and anger about crime and terrorism. These forces have now been turned against it. The monster that Murdoch helped to create is now taking big lumps out of his organisation. It is a fascinating sight.