UK Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted it. He recently declared that press self-regulation in Britain had failed and a new body, independent of the media and the government, is needed to properly enforce standards. Quite an admission for a conservative, although having his one-time communications chief, former editor of News of the World Andy Coulson, arrested Friday, may have finally concentrated his mind on Britain's corrupt press.
"Party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers that we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue," said Cameron, "The people in power knew things weren't right but they didn't do enough quickly enough."
That's putting it mildly. Britain's premier press lord, Rupert Murdoch, has been described as the most powerful man in the UK, a man whose blessing is essential to winning a general election. When Tony Blair first ran for prime minister, one of the first things he did was fly half way around the world to genuflect before Murdoch in his native Australia. And when David Cameron became prime minister, one of the first visitors to Number 10 was of course Rupert Murdoch. The Great Corrupter has almost singlehandedly turned the country's democracy into an oligarchy.
This corruption of the democratic system is the greatest threat oligarchs such as Murdoch pose, not the sordid practices of paying police for information and hacking into the phone messages of celebrities, young murder victims and the grieving families of dead soldiers.
Now, in a grand gesture, Murdoch has shut down his scandal-plagued News of the World, but not, I suspect, because he has recently discovered ethics. Rather more because the paper's advertisers are deserting it by the dozen in order to avoid the taint of sleaze, and that means it could quickly become a money-loser. Murdoch may not understand journalistic standards, but he certainly understands money. And then, of course, there is his need for government approval to buy the 61 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting he doesn't own.
Cameron has indicated Murdoch's apparent act of penitence won't get him off the hook. "I want everyone to be clear," He has said, "Everything that has happened is going to be investigated." He intends to appoint a judge to lead a thorough investigation of what went wrong at the News of the World, including alleged bribery of police officers, and establish a second inquiry to find a new way to regulate the press.
The latter is something we should be paying close attention to. Our daily press, even the Sun chain, isn't hacking people's phones or paying off police officers, but it is nonetheless owned and controlled by a handful of oligarchs and even if none have the power of Rupert Murdoch their concentrated ownership undermines democracy. We, too, need an independent regulator. The daily press is our most important public forum and is, therefore, much to valuable to leave to self-regulation by corporate interests.