Sunday, 10 July 2011

Crisis? What crisis?

Cameron and Coulson
I noticed Independent columnist Steve Richard saying on Twitter that 'Miliband's definition on Marr of what is the 'centre ground' more important in long term than NOTW saga.'

If he really believes that he is doubly foolish: wrong to think Miliband's comments are significant, wrong to think the News International story is merely a big story now but possessing no lasting significance.

From Neil Kinnock onwards, Labour leaders have come out with vacuous rhetoric about the 'centre ground' of British politics - in a bid to prove they aren't remotely left-wing - about once a fortnight. A number of previous episodes had already indicated Miliband was hardly a break from this long tradition. His comments about opposing the public sector strikes were important, because they indicated how he's positioning Labour in relation to the trade unions and the anti-cuts movement.

But those earlier remarks - never mind his latest waffle on Andrew Marr's show - are certainly of less significance politically than what has happened over the last week with the deepening crisis in the Murdoch empire. Anyone like Richards who plays it down (echoes of Jim Callaghan's "Crisis? What crisis?"), and suggests there's little long-term impact, is asleep. They don't get it.

Someone who does get it is Paul Mason, who has written one of the best pieces on the whole crisis so far. He nails a number of things: this is an acute situation for News International, it has wider implications for the media, and it is a political crisis not just a media crisis. It is, at a deeper level, connected to power and questions about who runs our society. Mason starts by capturing the scope of the crisis:

'The Murdoch empire fractured, a Conservative prime minister attracting bets on his resignation, the Metropolitan Police on the edge of yet another existential crisis and the political establishment in disarray.'

Some people have downplayed the effect on Murdoch's larger empire, but that overlooks both the seriousness of failing to secure total control of BSkyB (a growing likelihood) and the way that huge problems in one part of the totality can - economically and politically - impact on the whole.
Others don't yet grasp the repercussions for politics, missing the extent to which Murdoch's power has extended into British politics. As Mason writes: 'this one goes to the heart of the way this country has been run, under both parties, for decades... key parts of the political machinery of Britain are wavering.'

It's not just that Cameron has been tarnished by association with Andy Coulson, which initial polling suggests is damaging to his personal approval ratings and to support for both his party and government. It's not even just the humiliation of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's climbdown over the BSkyB deal. It is that 'a strategic break with the press barons' is necessary, throwing up new questions and uncertainties about the relationship between media and political power in this country.

The authority of major British institutions - of different elements in the ruling elite - had already suffered a long-term decline, a crisis in legitimacy. This last week's events could well take the distrust and hostility to new levels. The corruption of our democracy has been starkly revealed; in Mason's words, 'the whole web of influence has been uncovered'.

Arguments traditionally confined to the radical left - about the media, police and so on as instruments of class rule, economic power over-riding democracy, the limits of parliament - are thrust into mass consciousness and mainstream debate. It is a political crisis for those with power.


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