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How many voicemail messages does one need to hear before it is possible to come across anything which resembles a journalistic lead at all? 10,000? 50,000? They must pump those poor detectives with a helluva loada drugs – if I had to listen to thousands of John Prescott’s voicemail messages, I think that I would have probably cut my throat after barely a hundred.

The voicemail message is a more expensive equivalent of those little notes which you stick on the front of the fridge. Get More Milk. Water the Yucca. To my knowledge, nobody has ever come out or ended a relationship using voicemail. Hacking into the voicemails of the murdered teenager Millie Dowler is certainly grave stuff, but it was ultimately just deeply creepy. Perhaps it exposes the sheer desperation with which harassed News of the World hacks were forced to chase after the tiniest stray hair of a story, but it reveals little about the wider morality of investigative journalism. Although it may not be the most rewarding use of a journalist’s time and resources, phone hacking is not intrinsically immoral. A scoop may be so explosive that ransacking a few phones may be entirely justified to obtain it, although the journalist in question would, of course, have to be willing to go to jail in defence of the story’s importance.

Over the last few years there has been a series of sensations within the British media involving illegally or improperly obtained material. The parliamentary expenses scandal, which exposed widespread and systemic corruption amongst British parliamentarians, was kicked up from stolen documents which had been sold to the Telegraph by a City businessman for their own personal profit. Although the records of a democratically elected parliament should have been freely published in the first place, the fact that they were sold for personal gain “undermines,” as the MP Sir Stuart Bell has huffed, “the very basis of our democracy.” But, then, this was a great story.

And then came WikiLeaks: an indescriminate “dump” of illegally obtained and instantly-forgettable diplomatic reports. The most bizarre and sinister, but this time officially-authorised information snatch, came when the Guardian published 24,000 of the controversial American nonentity Sarah Palin’s home and office emails. There turned out to be so much useless guano that the Guardian had to recruit its own readers to shovel through it all, in a fashionable “crowdsourcing” exercise. Realising that he had led his volunteer battalion into a desolate wilderness and that they were looking increasingly mutinous, the Guardian‘s deputy editor Ian Katz assured the troops that, “there is a world of difference between combing publicly available material for potentially significant stories about a highly controversial political figure who could still be a US presidential candidate, and hacking into the voicemail of a celebrity to dig up dirt on their sex life.”

If they had accessed Palin’s voicemail messages ( “Hi, I’m guessing you’re not in, but please call me back.”), then this would be a heinous crime, but luckily they had only acquired thousands of emails which dealt with every aspect of her professional and private life in epic detail.

These are questions of taste rather than morality, but when it comes to demanding that the media should be “regulated,” most of the press are presently in the same greenhouse and if one person throws a stone, then everybody could end up being showered in broken glass. “Public interest” is such a broad precondition, with a handful of black spots (such as hacking into Dowler’s phone) and many more pools of grey shadow.

When the Hollywood actor Hugh Grant appeared on Newsnight last Tuesday as a “spokesman for the Hacked Off campaign,” he snorted that the press has squandered its freedom only to “find out who Ryan Giggs is having sex with. Who cares?” But not only celebrities enjoy a right to privacy. Leaving aside the point that sex and politics have been inextricably entangled since Antony sensationally shagged Cleopatra, if one imagines a scenario in which a senior executive at News International was sleeping with a member of the British cabinet, would Grant stoically pronounce that such information should not be published because it was “sordid” and not in the public interest? Hardly, but as a champion of celebrities’ privacy (Grant has called super-inunctions “fabulous”), he would probably favour a judge or some sort of committee deciding what the press could publish on a case by case basis.

Grant clearly regards tabloid journalists as servants who have grown unruly for want of discipline. In a superbly Owellian pitch, he has previously compared being photographed by newspapers in a free country to “living under the Stasi.” In a car-crash confrontation with a tabloid hack live in the Newsnight studio, Grant’s fellow celebrity Steve Coogan raged that, “this guy sat outside my house. It’s just a risible, deplorable profession that you’re in.” It was left to the online magazine Gawker to point out, in one of the few decent pieces of commentary to emerge from the current “phone-hacking scandal” that “sitting outside your house? That doesn’t quite cry out for regulation.” Gawker had here captured the exact moment when liberal outrage turned to authoritarianism.

An unlikely coalition of posturing celebrities and politicians who want an eye for an eye over the expenses scandal are demanding “regulation,” but might this sorry lot actually have a case? The most serious allegation to hang over News International is that they bribed and blackmailed police officers. Under Andy Coulson’s tenure, a detective subcontracted by the News of the World allegedly used Trojan software to raid the computer of a former army intelligence officer without his knowledge. Indeed, the News appears to have conducted private espionage on a grand scale and they may have to fork out unimaginable levels of compensation to their victims.

But all of these crimes are already illegal. The Metropolitan police may not have a leg to stand on when it comes to investigating News International, but the police nevetheless remain the only true “regulator” in town. There are instances when the police fail to apprehend murderers, but no sane person would claim in response that “we should give up on the police. We need a new regulator.”

All of the above is missing the fundamental point of this news story, however, for it is entirely about embarrassing a venerable old British institution: Rupert Murdoch, the original “harlot through the ages,” who has enjoyed a political and commercial supremacy within the British media since the days of Margaret Thatcher. The BBC in particular have accorded Murdoch’s embarrassment a massively disproportionate amount of coverage, and if their financial man Robert Peston had covered the collapse of Lehman Brothers with a fraction of the same interest, then the whole public might know vastly more about the current recession. As with WikiLeaks, the “phone hacking scandal” is likely to be completely forgotten within three months time. Once Murdoch has been embarrassed to everybody’s satisfaction, the story will boil away without any further material consequences, and our capitalist infrastructure will remain intact.

News Corp is as much of a doddering old dinosaur as Murdoch himself, and one provides a ready symbol of the other’s failings. The corporation may make over thirty billions a year and command such big guns as 20th Century Fox and Harper Collins, but if the two great modern media innovations are rolling news and social networking, then News Corp has not made steady strides in the first and it has had no luck at all with the second. Whilst grumbling about Murdoch is as traditional an English pastime as leering at today’s Page Three girl behind the bike shed, in recent years progressive types have been more likely to be heard complaining about the shiny new privacy infringements of Facebook and Google. It is a fact scarcely noted throughout the present scandal that there are millions of people under thirty whom Murdoch’s empire simply does not touch.

Only the politicians still appeared to be frightened of him – supporters of Neil Kinnock have always found it very convenient to blame the Sun for his 1992 defeat, when he would have probably lost even if this paper had supported him – but the speed in which Britain’s ruling class has now turned on Murdoch is virtually unbelievable. The overall impression is rather like watching a flock of sheep, who have been meek and tame for years, suddenly turning on their elderly farmer in a great vicious and senseless attack.

One at times wonders whether they are making a terrible mistake – they must surely know what they are doing? – but if there are to be no more slumber parties canoodling with Rebekah Brooks or News International executives slipping through the back door of Downing Street, then we could possibly witness the return to a golden age of secret societies. Dark meetings in the dead of night, with Rupert and Dave and Ed in their gorgeous robes, toasting each other from horn tankards. But how can we find out what happens in these meetings? If only one could somehow get at their phones …

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