Explaining the hacking scandal to the Swedes

From Stockholm’s Axess magazine

Swedish version here

Foreigners whose knowledge of Britain comes from the BBC or the Financial Times can believe that the English journalist is like the English gentleman: polite, meticulous and fair. Only when visitors pick up the popular press do they see a different, raucous and frankly bewildering country: obsessed with celebrities sport and sex. The British tabloids are aggressive, politically biased – usually towards right wing populist causes – opposed to the European Union, prurient, sanctimonious, bullying and, as we now know, criminal.

London’s Metropolitan Police has arrested almost 100 journalists, editors and newspaper contacts (and I am sure that more arrests will follow). Some are reporters I know, charged with hacking phones – that is of finding a way round the often primitive security of mobile phone companies and listening to voice mail messages. To the disgust of just about everyone, the targets did not just include celebrities, but a kidnapped girl and the victims of Islamist terror attacks on London. Other targets for detectives have been the police and prison officers journalists allegedly bribed for information. For all their alleged crimes, both the reporters and their contacts are minor figures. The scandal is politically explosive because Labour and Conservative governments concluded that they could not govern Britain without the support of Rupert Murdoch. They flattered him and his senior managers, who presided over the loose morals of the old newspaper industry. So alongside the tabloid reporters and the lowly police officers, detectives have arrested Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s former editor of the Sun, and Andy Coulson, who moved from editing a Murdoch paper to become David Cameron’s spin doctor. Politicians once grovelled before Brooks and Coulson, asked their advice on policy and invited them to their parties. Now they regret it. David Cameron in particular is as caught up in the scandal as journalists and editors.

What is to be done? To mainstream leftish opinion in Britain the arrest and prosecution of journalists and editors is nowhere near enough. They want statutory regulation of the British press. I find the dangers of political interference frightening. But the alleged “liberals” are unconcerned. They retain a belief in the old Marxist idea of false consciousness. When they ask themselves why the mass of people in Britain do not share their support for the EU, prison reform or an open door immigration policy, they do not conclude that there may be something wrong with their arguments. On the contrary, they are sure that the only reason they keep losing debates is because the tabloids have brainwashed the electorate, and turned voters into dull automatons, who repeat whatever wicked ideas journalists put into their minds. It is no good pointing out to them that the Web is destroying newspapers’ business models in Britain and the rest of the rich world, and that only one third of the population reads a daily newspaper. They are filled with righteous anger and passionate certainty, and have seized their moment. It looks as if the judicial inquiry into hacking will recommend the first statutory regulator of the press England has seen since the 1690s.

The tragedy is that in the age of the Internet, Britain should become a more not less liberal country. The United Nations has condemned our enormously expensive and biased libel laws as international scandal. They have allowed bankers and oligarchs to punish foreign journalists, including Danish journalists Exstra Bladet in London, for reporting in the public interest. Almost every day we hear cases of employers or the police punishing ordinary citizens for what they have written on Facebook or posted on Twitter. We need new and genuinely liberal laws to cope with a 21st century in which everyone can be a journalist and publisher.

Instead Britain is taking an authoritarian turn, and trying to censor a supposedly all-powerful press, that is, in truth, dying in front of our eyes.