On the evening of July 2, just before the Hackgate scandal took a devastating new twist, the 'Chipping Norton set' were at their leisure in the home of Elizabeth Murdoch and Matthew Freud.
The complete set includes a glittering array of PR and media executives, politicians, and people whom, in a less innocent age, we used to call capitalists. Peter Mandelson, Steve Hilton (Cameron's policy adviser), Robert Peston and Jeremy Clarkson of the BBC, Newscorp chief executive Rebekah Brooks, and Tory education minister Michael Gove were among those present. This gathering of the doomed has a glittering, gilded-age feel - but also a lurking tawdriness. They're like the rich in Diego Rivera's mural for the Rockefeller building, partying in obscene opulence, while the syphilis cell floats menacingly over their heads.
What exploded the next day was a lesson not only in tabloid morality, and the decline of the newspaper industry, but in ruling-class cohesion. Andy Coulson, now a former PR adviser to David Cameron, was editor of the News of the World while it engaged in systematic hacking of phones belonging to politicians, celebrities and members of the public. This much had been known since 2005, with detail accumulating since then to undermine the paper's "one rotten apple" story to explain the phone hacking. Cameron nonetheless employed Coulson, reasonably expecting that the scandal would not reach a critical mass if it hadn't already done so.
But on July 3, it emerged that the paper hacked into the voicemail messages of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler. Worse, the paper had deleted messages on the phone when it noticed the inbox filling up, in order to leave space for more newsworthy materials. The result was to give the parents false hope that Milly may be alive and deleting the messages herself. As if to bring the disgrace to a natural climax, the paper then sent reporters round for an exclusive interview with the family about their hopes. This was just a little bit less forgivable than snooping on celebrities.
Soon, anyone who had ever had their picture taken with Murdoch was disowning him and the whole clan. Murdoch's friendship had dropped in value quicker than Colonel Gaddafi's. His clout within the government dried up instantly, and his bid to takeover BSkyB collapsed. Newscorp shed a number of senior executives, then shed its most profitable UK newspaper, as News of the World was closed in disgrace. It made sense to close the paper, once the scandal was revealed: its turn to such corrupt methods reflected the desperate need to stay ahead in a newspaper market where profit rates were tumbling. Deprived of the competitive edge that such illegal behaviour produced, and with a 'toxic' brand, the paper could only be dead weight thereafter. The cosy relationship that News International executives had always enjoyed with Scotland Yard also rapidly became toxic, costing a number of senior officials their jobs, ultimately including Sir Paul Stephenson, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. It emerged that five officers alone had received bribes from News of the World totalling 100,000 pounds, with payments routinely being made to officers in exchange for information. In short, what seems to be emerging is a criminal enterprise reaching into not only the top of News of the World, not only the highest echelons of Newscorp, but actually the highest levels of the British state.
Yet, it isn't enough to call it a criminal enterprise. When politicians and flaks dined with the Murdochs, when police wined News of the World executives, they were acting as a class. In what way? Well, consider how Murdoch's power was built. He began his UK career by acquiring two newspapers intended for the popular end of the market: The News of the World (1968) and The Sun (1969). The latter had been the trade union-owned Daily Herald, and was not a tabloid - until Murdoch purchased it and saved on costs by turning it into one, which enabled him to print it with the same machine that turned out the News of the World. Murdoch's strategy was very simple: he delivered content that would attract popular audiences not by attending to their interests but through sensationalism, sports and entertainment.
Initially, his papers continued to be supportive of Labour. The later alliance with Margaret Thatcher followed after Murdoch had already built up a consumer base and after it had become clear that there was a popular base for Thatcherism. Murdoch then radically restructured the whole production model for his newspapers, making them cheaper and more efficient to produce, significantly by defeating trade unions. Indeed, with the support of the Thatcher government, he inflicted one of the signal defeats experienced by the trade union movement in recent British history. It was during this conflict with print workers that he first developed his relationship with the police. And it was partially because of his success in this battle, enabling him to consolidate a Tory axis in the mainstream press, that the Labour Party decided that to win elections it had to win over Rupert Murdoch. 'New Labour' was just the vehicle to woo the Wapping patriarch.
Murdoch bought up more newspapers, expanding overseas through 'horizontal integration' and mergers, and later expanded into broadcasting with the initially low-key Fox Broadcasting Company. Again, before there was the infamous radical right Fox News that we know today, the company had to spend years assiduously cultivating a consumer base with popular material such as The Simpsons. Yet the political conformity of his media, once the brand is established, has been astonishing. Not a single Murdoch paper, it has been noted, opposed the war with Iraq. He is known for personally intervening in his newspapers' political line, especially the popular papers. And Murdoch has sought to go further, expanding into the production not only of media content such as television and newspapers, but also the hardware - the channels, the cables, the cinemas, the satellites, etc - that facilitated the delivery of that content. He has expanded across the Atlantic, into the US, and then across the Pacific, into China. His dominion is global.
In each case, Murdoch's ideological power followed from his pragmatic pursuit of economic power. Each is inseparable from the other, each a facet of capitalist class power. Murdoch's ideological clout has until now been commensurate with his vast business empire, and his personal $US7 billion fortune. Not only that, but the often-corrupt and nepotistic relationships sustained by the Murdoch empire grew out of this power. They extend, as we know, along a number of radial axes connecting it to the Tory government and the Labour Right, the police, senior members of the judiciary (including Lord Leveson, the man the government has appointed to lead the inquiry into phone hacking), the BBC, and networks of private investigators. Such corruption might be considered a perk, a privilege of those who rule. It is not essential to business success, but it helps by circumventing the corseting formalities imposed by democracy.
Now, the wheels of an official inquiry are turning slowly. Traditionally, such inquiries work to take the heat out of controversies, by slowing the pace of revelations to a manageable speed, and stifling it in parliamentary language. Yet, there is a great deal of combustible material accumulating here, much of it right under David Cameron. Cameron has continued to maintain that he employed Andy Coulson believing him to be innocent of any hacking. Yet recently, former employee Clive Goodman alleged that Coulson, along with News International lawyer Tom Crone, promised him that he could return to his job if he did not implicate News International in his guilty plea over hacking. This would implicate them both in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Now we learn that Coulson was still in the pay of News International, when he was working as Cameron's head of communications – despite the party's denials and his own testimony to a select committee. Coulson is now under police bail, and would be doing well not to face prosecution. So, the question as to why Cameron really decided to employ him, and whether he could really have believed him to be innocent of hacking despite abundant evidence and warnings to the contrary, is not going to go away. And that's the beauty of 'Hackgate'. It threatens to burn everyone who has been undeservedly blessed by Murdoch over the years, even the prime minister. It has already felled News of the World and taken out much of the Metropolitan Police leadership - this scandal easily has the power to bring down a government.