This. This is what is happening in the UK right now. Radical destabilisation of the existing order, the status quo, through the pure power of the truth.
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.
A network of subversives would have counted that a spectacular result to achieve in a decade, let alone in a single week. But it was not subversives that achieved it – the wounds are self-inflicted.
As the News of the World scandal gathered momentum it became clear, by midnight on Thursday, that this was not just the latest of a series of institutional crises – the banks, MPs expenses – but the biggest. For this one goes to the heart of the way this country has been run, under both parties, for decades.
In economics journalism, we have learned to study what the Financial Times writer Gillian Tett calls “the social silence”: the subject that everybody at high-class cocktail parties wants to avoid.
After Lehman Brothers collapsed, we realised that the unasked question had been the most important: “on whose books do the increasingly toxic debts of the housing market stand?” The answer was “in the shadow banking system”, but we only knew it existed when it collapsed.
The political equivalent of that question is the one everybody has been asking journalists and politicians this weekend: why do all politicians kow-tow to Mr Murdoch; what is it that makes them incapable of seeing the moral hazards of the relationship?
Nobody outside the Murdoch circle knows the full answer, but I suspect it is quite prosaic: like the Wizard of Oz, Mr Murdoch’s power derived from the irrational fright politicians took from his occasional naked displays of it. The Kinnock “light bulb” headline was probably the signal moment. He was powerful because people believed he had the power, and that editors like Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson probably had a file on everybody bigger than MI5′s, and so you should never, ever, cross them.
Now there is a school of social theory that has a name for a system in which press barons, police officers and elected politicians operate a mutual back-scratching club: it is termed “the manufacturing of consent”.
Pioneered by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, the theory states that essentially the mass media is a propaganda machine; that the advertising model makes large corporate advertisers into “unofficial regulators”; that the media live in fear of politicians; that truly objective journalism is impossible because it is unprofitable (and plagued by “flak” generated within the legal system by resistant corporate power).
At one level, this week’s events might be seen as a vindication of the theory: News International has admitted paying police officers; and politicians are admitting they have all played the game of influence (“We’ve all been in this together” said Cameron, disarmingly). The journalists are baring their breasts and examining their consciences. The whole web of influence has been uncovered.
Finally, the political influence that was supposed to stop the system crumbling, itself has crumbled. We are told Tony Blair pleaded with Gordon Brown to call off Tom Watson MP from his crusade over the original hacking allegations. It did not work.
Tom Baldwin, Ed Miliband’s spin-doctor purposely selected from the Murdoch empire to hone Labour’s message in the direction of Wapping, warned Labour “not to conflate phone-hacking and BSkyB”. Mr Miliband’s Bloomberg speech on Friday contradicted that approach.
One part of the Chomsky doctrine has been proven by exception. He stated that newspapers that told the truth could not make money. The Guardian, whose veteran reporter Nick Davies led the investigation, is indeed burning money and may run out of it in three years’ time.
But a combination of the Guardian, Twitter and the public-service broadcasters, including Sky News, proved stronger than the power and influence of Rupert Murdoch, and for now the rest of Fleet Street has joined in the kicking.
(It should be said here that the Daily Telegraph’s role in the exposure of the MPs expenses scandal laid the groundwork for this moment. The Telegraph proved you can attack major sections of the political elite, who had assumed impunity, and win.)
Now three institutions stand weakened: Mr Murdoch is facing the collapse of his BSkyB bid; a Conservative Party, cut adrift from him, faces a moment of internal re-appraisal; and in the cappuccino joints around New Scotland Yard there is apprehension over whether the Met can survive another systemic kicking so soon after the MacPherson report.
Of all these institutions, it is the one with least resilience among the mass of people that stands in greatest danger. The Conservative Party has branches, summer fetes, jumble sales and social roots going back centuries; the Met is, tonight, dressed in its stab vests and fuelled by stale McDonalds, dealing with traumatized victims of urban mayhem on housing estates few politicians would dare to visit after dark.
But Rupert Murdoch’s resilience relies on the few handpicked lieutenants and family members holed up in London and New York. It is a classic “Weberian hierarchy” – a command structure stronger vertically than horizontally.
Six months ago, in the context of Tunisia and Egypt, I wrote that the social media networks had made “all propaganda instantly flammable”. It was an understatement: complex and multifaceted media empires that do much more than propaganda, and which command the respect and loyalty of millions of readers are now also flammable.
Where all this leaves Noam Chomsky’s theory I will rely on the inevitable wave of comments from its supporters to flesh out.
But the most important fact is: not for the first time in 2011, the network has defeated the hierarchy.
via Mark Pesce