4 February, 2011 — The Return of the Public
In February 1992 an Italian judge ordered the arrest of a socialist politician called Mario Chiesa. Chiesa had been caught on film accepting a bribe from a cleaning company in Milan. The Socialist Party sought to distance itself from Chiesa and the accused man began to name names in what became the greatest scandal in postwar Italian history. The accusations and the revelations accumulated until the extent of the criminality, long the subject of more or less informed speculation, finally became clear. The Italian system of government was revealed to operate as a vast criminal syndicate – a ‘Tangentopoli’, or ‘Bribestown’ – in which each political faction took its cut from public contracts.
The campaign against official corruption became a national obsession, in part because Tangentopoli emerged against a background of what the historian Christopher Duggan called ‘desperate measures to deal with the public debt’, in part because the fall of the Soviet Union weakened the anti-communist establishment that had controlled the country with CIA support since 1948. The investigating magistrates became celebrities and ‘by the spring of 1993 more than a thousand businessmen and politicians … were in goal’ (Duggan again). Another thousand were under investigation, including 150 members of parliament. In the end the scandal shattered the two pillars of the Cold War Italian political settlement – the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. Berlusconi emerged from the ruins of the right-wing to build a new party, Forza Italia, around his dominant position in the private media.
In Britain a News of the World journalist, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, were convicted of illegal phone-tapping and went to jail in 2007. The editor at the time, Andy Coulson, insisted that Goodman and Mulcaire were conducting a rogue operation at the newspaper and for a while it appeared that that would be the end of the matter. However, in the summer of 2009 Nick Davies reported in the Guardian that the News of the World had paid out more than a million pounds ‘to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal evidence of [Rupert Murdoch’s] journalists’ repeated involvement in the use of criminal methods to get stories’.
Since then the revelations have accumulated. It is clear that Goodman and Mulcaire were not working alone. Thousands of individuals were targeted and most of them would have been of no interest to a royal correspondent. The paper was not only targeting celebrities – it was going after politicians, too, on the grand scale. Furthermore, in evidence to the House of Commons the New International executive Rebekah Wade told MPs that ‘we have paid the police for information in the past’.
The Metropolitan police have shown a marked lack of zeal in investigating the activities of the News of the World and other newspapers. And now the Labour party is seeking to minimise the political impact of the revelations. A lot of powerful people want this scandal to go away. Some of the them have been under surveillance by the News of the World and other papers. Some have been receiving payments from the same media organizations – as occasional columnists, as authors, or as sources. The legality of all these payments needs to be investigated – and their political implications assessed.
Significant elements in the news media have been spying illegally on the political establishment. They have also been making payments to police officers, politicians and others. The sum of this activity has granted para-statal power to a handful of private individuals – the executives at New International, and one must presume at other private media organizations, have acquired compromising, even career-ending, knowledge about the private lives of our elected officials – knowledge that our MPs appear to think they might use. The newspapers in this country are storehouses of implicit blackmail.
Now consider the circumstances. The neoliberal political economy established in 1979 and confirmed in 1997 has lost its intellectual and moral legitimacy. The celebration of private enterprise ended in a state bailout of unprecedented size. Yet the response to a crisis in the financial markets has been, to borrow Christopher description from Italy in the early nineties, ‘a series of desperate measures to deal with the public debt’. Neoliberalism is dead, but it is, in Philip Pullman’s phrase, a hungry ghost.
Consider too the state of our knowledge. Italians in the 80s had a pretty good idea that their political system was systematically corrupt. The satirist Beppo Grillo ended one of his many careers in the mainstream media by asking ‘if the Chinese are all socialists, who do they steal from?’ The confession of Mario Chiesa converted this background assumption into knowledge that was publicly significant. Anyone with half an eye on current affairs will have noticed News International’s extraordinary hold over the British political classes. Now we know for sure that the country’s newspapers were hosts to vast criminal conspiracies – at the same time that they were promoting the Blatcherite fantasy that we could rely on a bloated financial sector to deliver prosperity. I am not saying that the push to the right and the criminal conspiracies are connected. I am saying that many politicians would have assumed a connection. As we take stock of our current troubles a reckoning with the media comes to seem long overdue.
Notice, finally, the role of offshore. UK Uncut has highlighted how the cuts to public services would be unnecessary if large transnational corporations and rich individuals paid their taxes at the same rate as everyone else. News International is one of the world’s foremost exponents of the art of tax avoidance. The company pays a rate of only 6% on its global profits (according to a 1999 Economist investigation cited in Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands). It lobbies the same politicians whose phones its journalists have been hacking to maintain its advantageous tax position. It has also consistently supported neoliberal politicians in Britain and the United States – it has helped maintain the silence about offshore from which it has so conspicuously benefited.
The Metropolitan police appear unwilling or unable to pursue this matter. The leaders of the political establishment are cowed by the press’ power to impugn their principles, their character or their competence. But the crimes are there, in black and white. Pull at the thread of criminality in the media and the fabric of the neoliberal settlement begins to unravel. There are honest MPs who dislike the turn the country is taking, police officers who want to uphold the law, journalists who want to report honestly.
It is up to us to help them.
We have here a wide-ranging and exhaustively documented conspiracy that seems to embrace elements from the main political parties and the police as well as large transnational corporations. Police officers have recently taken to spraying CS gas in the faces of UK Uncut protesters. Doubtless they thought doing so was necessary to uphold the rule of law. Those of us who are concerned about corporate criminality and the corruption of public life should take note of their example and do all we can to ensure that the police themselves are now properly investigated.
No one, least of all the police, can operate above the law. If they do then government becomes a kind of organised crime, where the rich seize the wealth of the rest of the population through their agents in the state, corporations opt out of their responsibility to pay tax, the country becomes embroiled in illegal wars, and our elected representatives bravely defy the voters’ wishes while kow-towing to their blackmailers.
That isn’t the kind of country I want to live in. Any more.
So, you know the drill – write to your MP, make imaginative mischief. Publish, agitate and persuade. The game is on, and this matter can be made into the point of decision. There are no grown-ups who will do this for us. The responsibility is ours.