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Is hacking scandal the UK's Watergate?

By Des Freedman, Special to CNN
  • Des Freedman: UK's political and media world upended in just two weeks
  • He says the phone hacking scandal has shed light on how power is wielded in the UK
  • The enormous influence of Murdoch's media has shaped policy for years, he says
  • Freedman: It would be a mistake to underestimate impact of the crisis

Editor's note: Des Freedman is a reader in communications and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of "The Politics of Media Policy."

London (CNN) -- The Watergate scandal saw the resignation of the president, the jailing of senior administration officials, the collapse of trust in the political class, a shift in the balance of power from one party to another, an increase in the reputation of the press and sustained pressure for freedom of information. All this took place over a period of years.

In just two weeks however, since journalists at the Guardian newspaper revealed that the News of the World had hacked into the cell phone of a murdered teenager, we have had the closure of Britain's second best-selling newspaper, the resignation of two of the most senior police officers in the country along with the departure of top News Corp. executives, the abandonment of News Corp.'s bid to take over Britain's largest satellite broadcaster BSkyB, the setting up of a major public inquiry into the ethics and regulation of the press and a political crisis that has rocked the media, police and political establishments.

Every day brings news of more arrests, more investigations, more allegations of either police corruption or media malpractice and more pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron for showing such bad judgment in hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press adviser.

Britain is gripped by tales of corruption and complicity at the highest levels and a mood is developing amongst a public -- increasingly agitated by cuts to public services, pay freezes and rising prices -- that top people need to carry the can for this kind of unacceptable behavior.

It would therefore be a mistake to underestimate the potential impact of this crisis. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. has for years dominated the British media scene and terrified politicians who dared even to contemplate challenging a news agenda based -- not only on scandal and sensationalism -- but also unequivocal support for Britain's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, firm backing for public spending cuts and consistent opposition to Britain's membership in the European Union.

The media frenzy for Murdoch
Murdoch done with newspapers?
Millions have now seen precisely how power works at the top of our society and will be dissatisfied with token reforms.
--Des Freedman

Since the former Prime Minister Tony Blair flew halfway across the world to seek Murdoch's support for his "New Labour" project back in 1995, Murdoch has been in and out of Downing Street talking privately to both Labour and Conservative administrations with one Labour administration adviser, Lance Price, even describing him as the "24th member of the Cabinet".

That spell has now been broken and members of all political parties are lining up to attack Murdoch's malign influence on British political culture and media. When Murdoch and son testify this week to a Parliamentary committee, millions will be watching to see whether they can extricate themselves from the crisis and, if not, are likely to revel in their discomfort.

But nothing is inevitable in such a volatile context and much depends on how fiercely the criminal investigations into phone hacking are carried out and how energetically media reformers seize the opportunity to press for wider change.

Indeed, some commentators are claiming that the whole episode is being sustained by a liberal cabal (including people at the BBC and the Guardian) who are politically, rather than ethically, motivated. Others are claiming that the actions of a few "bad apples" are potentially undermining press freedom in the UK and threatening the future of the remaining News Corp. titles (including the Times and the Sun) should executives decide to cut their losses and sell.

This is missing the point. Press freedom is being undermined not by the actions of investigative journalists at the Guardian but by a newspaper culture that is so desperate to increase readership and see off its competitors that it is willing to bribe police officers, hack into cell phones and abuse the privacy of individual citizens.

Democracy is undermined not by the inquiries and investigations that have been set in train but by the collusion between politicians, police chiefs and media moguls that has been revealed in recent weeks.

This is a hugely significant moment both for the British media and for British democracy. Millions have now seen precisely how power works at the top of our society and will be dissatisfied with token reforms. The powerful themselves, on the other hand, will be determined to contain demands for change and to blame the whole mess on the actions of a few misguided individuals.

The phone hacking crisis has demonstrated in stark terms that something is wrong at the heart of British society. Whether it ends, as Watergate did, with the resignation of the top elected politician in the land and the prospect of wider social change is far from certain but, either way, the spell of media power is facing its most serious challenge to date.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Des Freedman.

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