It’s a scandal that this scandal is the news
We name the guilty parties in the latest 'UK government cover-up' story: the political class, the police, and the media.
Press freedom has always been a cause close to my heart, one I have supported in the past by marching against bans and going to court to defend an infamous libel action. So, good for the Guardian and the BBC in facing down court injunctions and attempted gagging orders. Congratulations to these big media outlets for defying the police and the UK Attorney General and publishing their stories about the latest developments in the police investigation into the loans-for-peerages scandal in British politics (even though the BBC in particular was rather timid in its resistance).
Now that’s said and done, can we please all shut the f*** up about it?
This is one sort of headline story that I wish the media themselves would gag. Enough already about the possible scandal within the alleged scandal based on the leaked rumour about the alleged email that may or may not have been written and/or sent. And either pass the sick bag or stop the slightly nauseating back-slapping about how the brave freedom fighters of those tiny resistance groups, the BBC and the national press, have defeated the jackboot of a paper injunction. Get back to reporting on the real world and arguing about something really important. Believe it or not, the things for which the Blair government should be held accountable in its last days go beyond the contents of an email or some questionable Labour Party loans.
There is always a problem when the news is itself about a news story – as in the headlines about the injunction against the initial BBC story last week – and journalists start thinking their job is to make the news rather than report it. As other traditional arenas for political debate have withered in recent years, so the media have become the focus of public life. One danger is that some among the media class start to believe their own self-publicity, and imagine the world really does revolve around them. Thus we have heard a lot of talk in recent years of the media as ‘the real opposition’, and at least one national newspaper has issued an election manifesto (although the ‘Guardian Party’ did not actually put it to a public vote of course).
As part of its self-aggrandised role, much of the UK media has become the voice of political cynicism, always searching for the next scandal or cover-up. Some not only seized upon the latest rumours about the police investigating a rogue email inside Downing Street as major news, but compared their efforts to publish these rumours to the Washington Post’s historic exposure of the Watergate scandal! ‘Judge refuses to gag Guardian’ ran one modest headline in the, er, Guardian.
Behind all that hype, however, this affair barely qualifies as a political scandal at all. As has been pointed out on spiked before, it has long been normal practice for the leaders of all parties to nominate their big supporters for seats in the House of Lords. (Yes, that is an insult to democracy; but if you don’t like it, why not demand the abolition of that undemocratic chamber rather than quibbling about how the stooges and cronies get their seats?) The only difference here is that some rich supporters of both new Labour and the Conservatives gave money to election campaigns in the form of ‘loans’ rather than straight donations (see A level-headed guide to the Levy affair, by Brendan O’Neill). This gambit fell foul of the government’s own anti-sleaze laws, and New Labour was hoist with its own petard. Embarrassing, but no big deal in the wider scheme of things.
It was turned into a big deal by the police, who throughout have seemed keen to present themselves as the real opposition, grilling the prime minister, staging a theatrical dawn raid to arrest a top Downing Street aide and leaking juicy stories about the investigation to the media (see Get the Police out of politics!, by Mick Hume). Apparently finding little to go on in the loan-for-peerages allegations, but reluctant to drop such a starry headline-friendly case, the police changed tack and launched an investigation into allegations that top government aides had perverted the course of justice. This brings us to the fascinating revelations about what one Downing Street lackey may or may not have said to or about another one in an email or document. Allegedly.
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The cynics have made the point that it is always the cover-up that does the damage rather than the initial offence. Maybe, but we are hardly talking about President Nixon hiding the Watergate tapes here. Yet serious journalists are now talking in precisely those portentous tones about the gossip concerning what Ruth Thingy might have written to Lord Wotsit, putting it on a par with the struggle over the Pentagon Papers – a 7000-page internal US Department of Defense history of American involvement in Vietnam, the publication of which the Nixon White House tried and failed to stop. It has to be a historic story, you understand, or how else can those breaking it see themselves as history-makers?
Some of these media people appear so blinded by their own egotism that they cannot see one simple truth. They are not fearlessly exposing a cover-up at all. They are acting as the tame messenger boys for the different forces and factions involved, all of whom are trying to shape the news via leaks and whispers.
It is ironic that, despite the proliferation of conspiracy theories today, the authorities are probably less capable of covering anything up than ever before. There is so little sense of loyalty or common purpose left among the disoriented elites that no sooner has something been said than it has been leaked and counter-leaked. A serious illegal top-level plot would probably be all over the internet before it happened.
So it is that in this case, the politicians and the police have all been madly leaking stories in a bid to present their side of the story and scupper their opponents. The big story about the alleged Downing Street documents that the Guardian ran this week was not unearthed by tireless investigative journalism. It was handed to a journalist close to New Labour. This sort of news-management-by-leak is just a slightly more dramatic-looking version of boring old press release journalism, where the media outlets obediently republish what they are told by PR agents for celebrities. Their victory over some half-hearted injunctions does not make this a triumph for a free press.
The effect of this media scandal-mongering is that the discussion about the end of the Blair government appears as paralysed as that administration itself. Amid all the shrill exchanges about who said what to whom, there is little proper debate about what has happened to politics over the past decade, with the likely result that nothing much will change for the better whether Blair is succeeded by Gordon Brown or David Cameron or whoever.
Worse, this process is doing more damage to the public view not just of Blair and his aides but of democratic politics more widely. The underlying message is that every little thing governments and political parties do is a major scandal waiting to happen, every email is a big cover-up, nobody can be trusted – except, of course, the police, judges and media who are apparently there to save us from our elected representatives. The anti-democratic climate in which this debate takes place will not be altered by proposals to elect some of the House of Lords, supposedly in order that they might more effectively police the elected government (with the help of the police no doubt).
If we cannot gag these got-up scandal stories, let us at least name the guilty parties:
· The political class – guilty of bankruptcy, both in terms of money and ideas, of believing in or being loyal to nothing except saving their own skins, and of destroying belief in politics;
· The police – guilty of grandstanding, of PR-obsessed celebrity coppering, of making cases to make headlines, of getting too big for their boots and wanting to decide who runs the country as if it were some tinpot police state;
· The media – guilty of living in their own world, of look-at-me journalism where the messengers imagine that they are the story, of self-obsession, self-righteousness, self-importance and selective self-censorship.
We could let them all off with a caution if they promise not to do it again. But there seems little chance of that with such hardened repeat offenders, does there?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.