Monday, July 04, 2011


There is a critique of capitalism, popularised by Joel Bakan, which says that it is psychopathic. That is, if corporations were judged as personalities (which in legal terms they are), they would be found to have all the traits of the psychopath. There is a similar critique of the capitalist media, which begins with an institutional analysis of media corporations as necessarily large profit-seeking enterprises that subsist chiefly through advertising revenue (companies selling rich audiences to other companies), and concludes that this media is a propaganda system that contributes to industries of death - imperialism, environmental destruction, capitalist predation, etc. That is, very crudely paraphrased, the Chomsky/Herman critique. One might, as a marxist, have legitimate qualms with 'institutionalist' analyses, especially if they lose sight of the antagonisms within the institutions they're describing, and the wider structuring role of such antagonisms in society as a whole. Nonetheless, these accounts have the advantage of a basic realism about the fact that predatory behaviour is not incidental to capitalism, but immanent to it.

On the face of it, this isn't the worst example of such behaviour. Compare with the torrent of lies that took us into Iraq, abetted by the civilised broadsheets. Compare with the routine publication of racist pulp fiction as news, or the endless propaganda about Haiti, or the Pravdaesque capitalist realism about the urgent need for social devastation in the form of austerity. Perhaps, one might conclude, this is exactly the sort of tale of a tabloid behaving badly story that the more respectable papers like because it makes them appear in a good light. And, however appalling it is, you might say, it's fairly trivial compared to the usual performance of the press. You may even observe that one person who would have good reason to breathe a sigh of relief over this is Johann Hari, whose petty bullshitting now looks sweet by comparison. I don't quite see it that way myself. I consider this story sinister down to the last detail. Not just the hacking of Milly Dowler's voicemails; not just listening in to every word spoken by a distressed relative; not just deleting messages when the inbox was full, to make space for more messages; but actually profiting from the brief moment of false hope when people thought that Milly Dowler must have deleted the messages herself and thus be alive, by sending hacks round to conduct an exclusive interview with the unaware family about their hopes. In a depraved way, they circled around the vulnerable, knowingly, cynically awaiting a moment of weakness, brazenly bleeding them dry when the opportunity presented itself, creating some of the torment that they then exploited.

And Surrey police allowed them to do it. They say they had other priorities, that there was a lot of dirty stuff going on. They couldn't even trust their own mobile phones for fear of being hacked, had evidence of News of the World openly breaking the law, and refused to move a muscle against them. As anyone who has followed the 'hacking' scandal knows, there is a long history of evidence of illegal behaviour by the News of the World which the police have refused to act over - doubtless unrelated to the cosy relationship enjoyed by Newscorps executives with senior police officers. The Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service both declined to take up the extensive evidence of criminality. Not only that, but the politicians backed off from any parliamentary inquiry for fear that Murdoch's hacks would delve into their private lives. As a result, this vile organisation continues to be at liberty to not merely pump out toxic propaganda, which would not distinguish it, or defile the senses with endless vulgarisation and degradation, but actually wreck lives in quite a direct way. And the Murdoch empire continues to expand for as long as he doesn't run out of political allies.

It will never stop until there is a comprehensive popular rejection of the Murdoch press, and particularly its two staple tabloids. It will not stop until something like the post-Hillsborough boycott of The Sun in Liverpool is rolled out nationwide. This relevation ought to be the occasion for that.