Like Watergate, the accelerating implosion of the Murdoch empire was provoked by breaches of privacy. Richard Nixon, as part of his successful game plan to crush the pointy-headed McGovernite liberals and the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ who opposed his continued slaughter in Vietnam, authorized spying on them and other dirty tricks, then tried to cover up the wiretapping, snooping and manipulations through payoffs and dissembling. Eventually and ironically, he was brought down by his own tapes of his own conversations, hoist on the petard of eavesdropping as a way of life.
The Murdoch octopus, comprised of British tabloids, The Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, Fox and until recently a major British cable company, may face a similar fate and through similar means. After making life hell for anyone who stood in their way by snooping on them, tracking their movements almost before they made them, hacking their cellphones, intimidating them and possibly blackmailing them, in the spirit of J. Edgar Hoover, with dossiers on their secrets—in short, by using the cover of journalism to campaign relentlessly in favor of the empire’s pecuniary interests, Murdoch’s minions now face the blinding spotlight that they have made a facet of British life. No one will pity their discomfort, and if god is indeed great, it will be severe.
Is it not curious that abuses of the sanctity of private life can generate such political earthquakes? Murder victim Milly Dowler’s family was consumed with grief over the loss of their teenage daughter to a sexual psychopath, but Murdoch’s media machine could not see past the succulent headlines to be gathered from the victim’s phone messages. A public indifferent to the annoyances of movie stars pursued by photographers was appalled. Similarly, Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ thought his enemy’s psychiatrists could have useful data to marshal against the boss’s critics and so burglarized a shrink’s offices in an attempt to humiliate Daniel Ellsberg. No one was safe, no private space immune.
While illicit spying has triggered these political avalanches, popular revulsion is not over the snooping per se but the hubris generated by snoopers’ vast powers. People react to the implications of placing such capacity in the hands of the mighty. If the president himself can wiretap his enemies and send out the IRS to harass them over taxes, who can stop him? If Murdoch’s tabloids can buy your medical records and bribe chief investigators at Scotland Yard, how is that so different from dictatorship?
The Cold War presented the contrast between a lively, open society with citizens unafraid of their governments and the frightening Big Brothers of the eastern bloc where secret police overheard everything and threatened the dissident with Siberia or simply the social annihilation easily accomplished by an authoritarian state. Yet once the Soviet Union disappeared, it is we who are fair game for the insatiable maw of the security apparatus, fed by the threat of terrorism and perversely eager to keep it alive to justify further intrusions into our e-mails, our library borrowings and our private telephone conversations.
Carl Bernstein is quoted in The Guardian today saying that this is ‘the beginning, not the end’ of the seismic event. With Murdoch’s protected favorite, Rebekah Brooks, now having resigned, it is evident that the man behind the curtain is frantically pulling at the levers but producing no smoke. We’ll see how much he enjoys being the story instead of controlling it.
But in the long run the Bush-Obama spying/snooping extravaganza will have to face scrutiny, too, for example, over this shameful episode. Our bought-and-paid-for members of Congress lose no sleep over the gross abuses contained in the Patriot Act and barely debated its renewal after the current administration requested it. This does not mean the citizens they purportedly represent will forever share their indifference.