Back in 2011, when the UK was being inundated with revelations regarding the extent of News Corp’s nationwide espionage, it was interesting to muse on the hacking victims that weren’t coming forward – and the seamy secrets that weren’t spilled in the tabloids. After all, was there a powerful person in the land whose phone wasn’t tapped – you had to ask yourself what Rupert Murdoch didn’t now know about this country? It was such thoughts that made the subsequent castigation of News Corp so comic, as peasant after peasant was obliged to gingerly hurl a rotten tomato at a master who would all-too-soon be released from the stocks.
And, a few months on from “Hackgate” – wouldn’t you know it – there was “Savilegate.” These consecutive scandals betray a quite provocative symmetry. In the former, a media corporation was raked across the coals because of its perceived callousness towards a victim of pedophilia (the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone), leading to a limb of that corporation – the News of the World – being lopped off. In the latter, another media corporation (the former’s nemesis, no less) was raked across the coals because of its perceived callousness towards the victims of pedophilia, leading to a limb of that corporation – Newsnight – almost being lopped off. Curious.
The genesis of Savilegate is interesting. An excellent source tells me: “the Savile accusations were going nowhere until the Spectator picked them up. An interesting osmosis then occurred: News Corp spotted it, and Rupert Murdoch himself said ‘we can use this.’” Indeed, who else would have the “great clanking balls” (to borrow Tony Blair’s unforgettable phrase) to break that longstanding media taboo?
While one presumed intention in Newscorp lifting the lid on Savile is obvious enough – “screw you, BBC” – an additional, subtler motivation is also feasible. Put simply, by instructing his media empire to turn up the volume regarding the real Jimmy Savile Murdoch must have known he would be sending very awkward reverberations through the wider establishment that was tentatively standing up to him and holding him to moderate account at the Leveson Enquiry.
Yup, Labour, the Tories, the Royals, the cops – Savilegate must have had the lot of them squirming. You can release all the shtick you like about there being “no pedophile ring” involved (I actually caught some BBC Savile coverage where this reassuring message scrolled ceaselessly across the foot of the screen) but his lifetime license to abuse and access the nation’s children without a hint of trouble suggested otherwise, while his manifest intimacy with the great and the good carried further uncomfortable messages into the national unconscious.
Meanwhile, Leveson was still promising to damage News Corp’s reputation and influence around the world…
Step forward Labour MP Tom Watson, the person deserving of the most credit for the development of Hackgate. Savilegate certainly appeared to have influenced his research and thinking in the logical direction, and so, fresh from inflicting a flesh wound on Rupert Murdoch, Mr Watson thinks “fair enough,” and turns his trusty ole .45 on the Devil Himself, asking at PMQs about that “powerful pedophile network linked to Parliament and Number Ten.”
David Cameron’s expression said it all (“won’t someone rid me of this meddlesome priest”), and the ripple of silence that spread through Parliament betrayed the sense that this had an outside chance of going down as one of the most significant moments in British political history. You can only admire Watson’s chutzpah, but the damnedest things will happen if you try to shoot the Devil, and in this incident it was to transpire that the gun was loaded with some very magical bullets indeed – ones that whizzed away from their intended destination to bury themselves in the enemies of… Rupert Murdoch.
Initially, it had all looked eerily promising, and the effect of Watson’s words on the public imagination was compounded when he revealed the death threats he had subsequently received. Coupled with Savilegate, all this was threatening to wake the British public up from its long, deep sleep. Nothing better illustrated the unlikely places extreme disquiet was creeping into than Phillip Schofield’s outright heroic (and, of course, widely reviled) confrontation with the Prime Minister on daytime television.
Then, of course, there occurred that piece of grandiose chicanery regarding Newsnight’s incorrectly “naming” Alistair McAlpine as an abuser of Steven Messham. Only they didn’t name him – and his name had anyway already been in circulation for years, presumably due to a mix-up with a certain Jimmie McAlpine, his deceased cousin (the less said about him the better). This went almost completely unremarked of course, and most of the public was once again successfully frightened away from waking reality.
Understandably, much has been made on the blogosphere of the following exert from Alistair McAlpine’s 2001 book, The New Machiavelli: The Art of Politics in Business, and the following – shall we say coincidental? prophetic? fishy? – suggestions regarding dealing with the media.
“Another useful ploy is the false accusation. First, create a situation where you are wrongly accused. Then, at a convenient moment, arrange for the false accusation to be shown to be false beyond all doubt. Those who have made accusations… become discredited. Further accusations will then be treated with great suspicion.”
What was really interesting, however, is how the effects of this apparent masterclass in mass manipulation weren’t delimited to “discrediting” those who would like to see powerful pedophiles exposed and prosecuted, but also influenced Leveson, providing a smokescreen behind which Lord Leveson himself could switch costumes – when it cleared he was no longer the judge of News Corp (as he was supposed to be) but of the Internet, and the “online dilettantism” that had supposedly resulted in the conveniently close-to-hand defamation of Alistair McAlpine.
Admire and wonder at the course of those magic bullets! Did someone get to Leveson (or rather the Establishment he represents)? Furthermore, was Savilegate somehow the instrument of this manipulation?
Certainly something is going on behind the scenes. The question is how much the British Establishment is able to put its collective interests (in other words, survival) above its intestine disputes. Since the outbreak of hostilities we’ve seen suspicious deaths (Christopher Shale and Sean Hoare) and death threats (Tom Watson and Steven Messham) – the stakes are clearly high. Meanwhile, there are thousands more people – including some honest and intrepid politicians and journalists – for whom Pandora’s Box is now very much ajar. Certainly the British Establishment can often look too rotten to burn, but you might once easily have thought that about the Catholic Church….