On February 27, the police struck back: at the Leveson hearings, Sue Akers, the London police chief in charge of the investigation, alleged that “a culture of illegal payments” to police and other public officials was endemic at the Sun. She gave details of the sums involved — some of which rivaled the civil penalties that News International has had to pay out. She implicitly promised more damaging revelations. But she also made it easier for the arrested Sun journalists to claim that her public statements have hopelessly prejudiced any trial they might face. And there matters currently stand.
This battle is not a faraway dispute of which Americans know nothing. It is an event of real importance in American politics. For it may well determine the future of Rupert Murdoch’s worldwide media empire. Were News International to be found collectively guilty of some corporate malfeasance, then the political and media elites in the U.S. would seek to hold its parent company guilty of the same offense here; to make it adopt media-industry “professional standards” — i.e., liberal opinions — under the guise of business regulation; and perhaps to compel it to sell off its main news operations.
The Left on both sides of the Atlantic desperately wants this to happen. Many left liberals will only be content if News Corporation eventually perishes under a thousand attacks from lawyers, celebrities, politicians, regulators, official enquiries, the BBC, and the remnants of the cozy liberal British establishment.
As they realize, there is a lot at stake here. Most people in Britain receive their news from an institutionally leftist BBC, most in America from its dispersed equivalent in ABC, NBC, CBS, Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. To be sure, their influence has declined relatively owing to the rise of the Internet and talk radio. But the news agenda of most professional media outlets is set by their morning stories. They disseminate the same cultural values and “attitudes.” They all drink from the same ideological streams. They are a media establishment in themselves.
The Murdoch media in both countries have broken this ideological oligopoly. Murdoch’s news media break different stories, cite different facts, quote different experts, cover the same stories from different angles, and retrieve those stories that embarrass the Left and that the establishment media has therefore spiked. Is Fox fair and balanced? Not entirely. But it is probably fairer and more balanced than its liberal rivals because it is more likely to be held to account for any errors. And the different news agenda it represents is a particular threat to the liberal Left which relies disproportionately on the establishment media for political strength and cultural dominance.
Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, however, have been slow to see the risks to them in this assault — in part because many of them dislike the tabloid press, in part because the phone-hacking scandal is a genuine one, in part because they have internalized the Left’s critique of tabloids, and in part because they are frightened of their own shadows. Thus David Cameron’s appointment of the Leveson inquiry to avoid embarrassment (he was a friend of the NOTW’s editor, Rebekah Brooks) will end in his being continually embarrassed by a string of revelations — and, conceivably, in the elimination of a crucial long-term ally of conservatism in Britain and America.
For the Murdoch media are all but indispensable for the preservation of a patriotic and traditional political culture that underpins popular electoral support for conservatism. If the Fox News Channel and the Sun were to disappear, so would a daily reinforcement of patriotism, free-market economics, and commonsense morality, all expressed in a lively, forceful, and accessible (not to say vulgar) style. How many Reagan Democrats would be left a year or two later? Or working-class Tories? Or social conservatives? Or tea-party enthusiasts? Fewer than now certainly.