Grassroots Reporting Can Replace Murdoch Media

posted by Geoff Andrews at Tuesday, August 02, 2011

published on MSN 27 July

The last few weeks have seen an extraordinary change in the relationship between Rupert Murdoch, the political class and British public opinion. For years, Labour and Conservative leaders have courted and dined the media mogul, with an unspoken acceptance that his support and that of his papers was crucial for any election victory.

The ‘Hackgate’ scandal has changed all that. The parliamentary interrogation of Rupert and James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks was dramatic confirmation that the tables have turned. The most ‘humble’ day of Rupert Murdoch’s life, when he had to answer to a parliamentary committee for the behaviour and practices of his staff, has given renewed vigour to parliamentarians and all those who have felt that the Murdoch empire had become too powerful.

As is now becoming clear, Hackgate cannot be confined to the actions of a few News of the World journalists and Metropolitan police officers. Rather it has erupted into a profound crisis in the relationship between the media and politicians, another example of the fractured and decaying nature of British public life.

While it may be too early to write the obituary of the spin doctor, the secretive and arrogant styles of media and political elites has taken a sharp jolt, and will never be quite the same again. For the last two decades or so British politics has been driven by spin and croneyism, with the most decisive political relationship increasingly that between the party’s communications directors and the press.

This showed contempt for the public and resulted in the marginalisation of other political voices. In the aftermath of Hackgate, Tory backbenchers have complained that while they only had limited access to the PM, Rebekah Brooks and colleagues were welcomed at all times; similar stories are recounted from the Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell era of New Labour dominance.

However, out of a crisis new opportunities often emerge. At the same time as the powerful media corporations are forced to justify their methods, the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter has challenged power elites from below. This has been crucial in the Arab Spring, both in reporting the events to a wider audience (in some cases before the mainstream media arrived) as well as galvanising the actions of protesters. Facebook was also crucial in the defeat of Silvio Berlusconi in a significant regional election in Milan, while blogging continues to give space to citizen journalists.

We cannot assume that a combination of these two developments will necessarily lead to a long-term shift to greater transparency and democracy in the role of the media. For example, Rupert Murdoch still has massive media interests in the US and Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset empire is yet to receive the kind of scrutiny we have witnessed over the last fortnight in the UK. However, nobody could have predicted the speed with which the Murdochs were called to account. Much will depend on which of our politicians and political movements grasp the new opportunities. The Hackgate scandal continues to uncover new revelations almost on a daily basis and is also shifting the balance of power in British politics, with a rejuvenated Ed Miliband looking to profit and David Cameron’s leadership now in doubt. This suggests that an open and transparent media remains crucial to democratic debate. There is the chance now that we will not only see a more responsible media but the development of more inquisitive and grassroots reporting.