Friday, 8 July 2011

A revolution snatched away

I avoided the tabloids anyway. A glance at a headline, or the first few sentences of an article, and I felt quite sick enough with no need to go further, like seeing a plate of mouldy food. Or hearing respectable-looking people spouting about how all jobseekers and immigrants are scroungers out to destroy their families and our culture because they read about it in such and such a rag. Or how climate change is all a lie, and how all scientists are dishonest "boffins" who mindlessly propogate each other's unfounded ideas. It kind of told me all I felt I needed to know. You know? And I know so little about media, law, and corporations - they're just not my sort of subjects - so I fear this will be a most spectacularly uninformed sort of blogpost. And yet I've certainly discovered that it is important to listen to the voices of the uninformed - sometimes they ask the best questions, or reveal weak spots that I can help strengthen.

It all happened so fast. I've spent the last few days glued to Twitter and the news - when I'm not busy at the office, obviously, and I've been doing extra time there this week as we've got a fundraising event tomorrow. There's too much stuff to read. I can't seem to keep up even if I spend all evening reading all the stories I can lay my mouse arrow on.

First it was the horror at them not only hacking Milly Dowler's phone, not only torturing the bereaved with false hope, but tampering with evidence; and Rebekah Brooks having the cheek to claim she had nothing to do with it and it was all for the public good. It got worse, with 7/7 family victims and dead soldiers's families having the same done to them. How could thinking, feeling people do this to each other? How could we give them the power to be the ones to tell us what's going on in the world every day?

David set up the #RebekahBrooksExcuses hashtag, which promptly went viral. I heard that the police knew what News of the World had been doing, and were either too pathetic to react or were actually bribed. Angry Mob pointed out very sensibly that this shouldn't really be news. It was the state of things. Should we be angrier about a 13-year-old girl than someone else? Part of me couldn't help but think yes - in the sense that as a former teacher I can't help but see children as people to especially nurture and treasure, and to feel that this callousness went beyond the mainstream - but it was a very good point (and I recommend you read that article). "We appear to be in a situation in which the majority of newspaper consumers accept without protest that what they read each day is not or cannot to be trusted . . . As consumers we can’t afford to be selectively outraged by an illegal technique depending on who it targets," wrote Kia Abdullah. Indeed.

Outrage grew into a determination to do something. We on Twitter smugly noticed we had power, and that was why many right-wingers especially hate Twitter. A Facebook group was created to "Boycott News of the World". (There are now several - including one which urges a boycott of all Murdoch's empire.) Of course, since most of its members wouldn't have been News of the World readers anyway, a boycott wouldn't be so effective - so they asked for ideas on what to do. For example, urging friends and relatives to boycott it; putting pressure on shops not to stock it; putting pressure on large corporations not to advertise in it. Ford was I think the first to publicly pull out (not of News International though!) - the Co-op put out a press release to say it was suspending it for now. Quite a few followed suit.

I wrote in with another suggestion: that a new "newspaper" was created offering cheap advertising space to all those who pulled out of News of the World advertising, along with exposes about phone hacking. I also signed Avaaz and 38 Degrees's petitions (I worry about signing two; but I did write a personal note with both of them - here is the one for Avaaz if you'd like to read it) - briefly, I asked the government to take this opportunity to consider the UK's own media laws. Clearly we have nothing to stop one individual taking over most of our media - which is wrong. No voice should have quite so much domination, as it affects not only our culture and policies but effectively decides who comes to power. Shouldn't we have a law to say that no individual or corporation can own more than such-and-such a percentage of our media? I'm sure it would be more complicated than that, but shouldn't it also be basic civilisation?

Then I saw Hugh Grant. Did you see Hugh Grant? I've never been a fan of him as an actor, but it took me about five seconds to become a fan of his bugging of and then confrontation with Paul McMullen - who seems to think that a) his own bugging of people is "a game", b) an actor's doing the same thing is "stooping" and "hilarious", and c) someone else's income somehow affects the issue. Even with terrorists I ask myself "What is driving them to this?" but with McMullen all I could think about was how pleasant it would be to pelt him with rotten tomatoes.

It was furore. And out of furore came hope. Steve Richards and Matthew Norman wrote thrilling pieces in the Independent about what this means for Murdoch in the long run. "When Margaret Thatcher made her Faustian pact with Mr Murdoch in the 1980s, granting him his every heart's desire in return for his unwavering slavish support, she hastened the creation of the monster we see revealed in all its gruesome hideosity today," wrote Matthew Norman. "In general terms, she gifted him the preposterous media market share he expertly parlayed into a stranglehold over the political elite. In a country without a written constitution, bereft of checks and balances and devoid of oversight, the levers of power are there to be seized by the most ruthless buccaneer in town . . ."

Politicians don't dare oppose what Murdoch's newspapers say, he argues, because it is they that make or break their careers. There was, is, opposition - but until now it's only been in whispers. They have now turned to outright shouting. "Today there is that tantalising sense that we no longer need to tolerate such Murdoch-Government axis powers' outrages . . ." Norman continued. "Today there is the hope, faint but seductive, of change. Public repugnance on this scale is a rare and precious force in a country beset by apathy. It fades very quickly, and must be harnessed and deployed before it does. It would take cross-party unity on a scale seldom witnessed outside time of war, with all three leaders agreeing that this, finally, is the moment to take up Vince Cable's rallying cry and go to war with Murdoch to break his dominion."

I watched. I retweeted. I wished I was nearer where things were going on. I fully wished that News of the World could be steadily bankrupted, as advertisers pulled out and sales plummeted. I hoped that Murdoch and Brooks and Coulson and their type would be the ones to pay. But they were several steps ahead.

I watched, as ever, in the office after I'd finished all the day's tasks. Then I got a very annoying phone call from a chap from Oxfam who demanded that I set up a standing order for what amounted to 12% of my income, fobbed off my "I'm at work and yes I am having a busy day" with "I won't keep you long" followed by an in-depth lecture, and who I eventually had to rudely hang up on. (I gave up donating to Oxfam because they pelted me virtually weekly with junk mail demanding that I give more when I had just graduated and was jobless for months. It must have cost more to send me so much stuff than what I was actually giving them. I told him this, and he informed me that only 11% of donations went to administration costs.) Then I was in such a bad mood that I went and spent more than 12% of my weekly wage getting myself some more work trousers and a birthday shirt for my mum, and a carrot cake. Then I went and picked my mum up from work, and we went home and ate. This took a couple of hours. Then I switched on my laptop and found out that News of the World was closing down.

For a minute or two I was almost dancing with glee. Finally, they had realised that they were not above the law and basic decency. They had responded much more dramatically than I had thought. Closing down! Actually shutting up shop!

Until this amazement faded and I realised what had actually happened. Brooks and the managers were staying. The journalists working for them were being sacked. Two hundred and fifty people about to be made unemployed - probably the majority of whom had never done anything wrong except to work for a dodgy paper, which some of them might well have been doing simply because they loved journalism and hoped to move onto something better once they'd risen a bit higher. The National Union of Journalists called an emergency meeting, and I hope it can help as many of these poor people as possible.

Opinion was split over that. Many people commented, not without reason, "Now these people are going to be the jobless they themselves have been smearing." Or, "Why the outrage at the News of the World closing when yesterday you were shouting for it to be made bankrupt?" I had made a joke about how Cameron was going to use our taxes to bail out the bankrupt News of the World, just like the banks - sadly, something very much like that had happened. As ever, the more vulnerable are the ones that paid to save the rich.

Two days ago it seemed that things were in the people's hands. Now they're not. Coulson is being very publicly arrested again, and I have the depressing feeling that he will easily talk his way out of it all again. The News of the World will simply be rebranded - even more depressingly, its new domain name was set up five days ago, I think before even the campaigns started. It seems they knew this was going to happen eventually, and merely picked their moment.

"Murdoch has never been as vulnerable as today and, if allowed to wriggle free, never will be again. This is an historic opportunity for parliament to excise the most aggressive malignancy in the body politic these past three decades, or at the very least stop it growing," wrote Matthew Norman.

I fear he's being very well protected from his vulnerability. There is one weak link left in his chain, though, and that is whether anyone actually buys his stuff or not. He and the government cannot yet force us to buy certain newspapers. We can also continue to pressure companies not to advertise in them (I wonder if those who pulled out knew all along that it was safe to do so?). We can, I suppose, keep the pressure on the government to reform media law to prevent such ridiculous domination happening again - although I don't know if domination and revolting tactics are necessarily related. (The only point McMullen made that did give me a nasty twinge was that hacking can also expose corruption that should be exposed . . .) And I couldn't resist putting up the logo of this Facebook group. Although it's mean to the journalists who write for the other papers, it sort of amounts to something we can still do.

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