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Cameron should announce this morning that he's sending for a judge

By Paul Goodman
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Media stories fascinate journalists.  They usually bore voters - most of whom believe that the trade is ludicrously self-absorbed and self-referential.  That investigators hack into phones, journalists grease policemens' palms, editors mislead Select Committees, and party leaders cuddle up to proprietors is not so much the way we live now as the way we've lived for years.  The News of the World was scarcely alone in paying investigators for information.  A report from the Information Commissioner produced a payments league table as long as five years ago: the Daily Mail topped it, followed by the Sunday People and the Daily Mirror.  Nor were the broadsheets exempt - if you doubt it, read this account on this site.  The Observer and the Sunday Times also appeared in the table.

So despite closure of the News of the World to salvage Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB bid, there is still a case - just - for saying that the scandal will have no lasting effect on the Government.  Furthermore, some Conservative MPs and party activists will be reluctant to see a scalp handed to the Guardian, the yellow b***tards (since Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are calling for a public enquiry) and especially Ed Miliband, who has turned on Rupert Murdoch and thus spurned the advice of his own media head, about whom Lord Ashcroft writes below.  And the combined assault by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Britain's main left-wing newspaper is no coincidence.  The Murdoch press aren't reliable allies of the Conservative Party.  But as Tim wrote yesterday, they are cheerleaders for a smaller state, lower taxes, tougher sentences.

Muzzle the tabloids, and only the Times and Telegraph would be left to take on the Guardian and the BBC - or, if you prefer, Guardian TV.  In such an event, Britain's media centre of gravity would shift decisively to the left.  And the News of the World's defenders were right to say that it has a better record of exposing corruption than the broadsheets.  But this line of argument misses the big point.  We should be ashamed to live in a country in which journalists delete messages from the mobile phones of murder victims and are so desensitised as to shrug off this act as part of a game.  In which powerful media outlets see themselves as being above the law.  In which editors mislead Select Committees.  In which police have entered into a relationship with those outlets that is collusive and bent.  In which the Press Complaints Commission, which is meant to regulate the trade, has self-evidently failed.

So while the voters may turn away from the media writing about itself, yesterday's coup de theatre by Murdoch will have seized their attention.  And though newspaper sales have plummetted - part of the cause of the scandal - they still collectively sell millions of copies and the new media is buoyant: as I write, the Huffington Post has just launched in Britain and Dale and Company is shortly to do so.  Voters consume what they read, perhaps especially in newspapers, with emotions ranging from pleasure to disgust, and everything in between.  Sometimes, that disgust is self-disgust: disgust at the greed, hate, envy and self-righteous rage which the tabloids are skilled at provoking, and self-disgust for consuming it.  As ever, Burke has words for it.  At their worst, the tabloids can be "an animated mass of putrefaction...corrupting itself, and corrupting all about it."

Yes, voters fear and distrust even the papers they buy and read.  And the stinking problem that the latest revelations have unearthed is now festering on the floor of Downing Street.  David Cameron has no intention of sweeping it under the carpet.  He knows that the tide of filthy revelations can't be dammed up.  He knows, too, that even though Andy Coulson has left Downing Street, he remains a millstone around his neck and a deadly risk to his reputation.  The Prime Minister is to hold a press conference this morning.  It's reported today that he will next week announce two enquiries - one to kick off now into press regulation generally, and one later into the News of the World scandal (so as not to prejudice the police enquiry).  He will apparently seek Ed Miliband's endorsement.  The logic of two enquiries is impeccable, and one can see why Cameron would seek to muzzle Miliband by hugging him close.

But would waiting the best part of a week really be gripping the crisis?  There is a risk, too, that by allowing Miliband the weekend to command the airwaves, Cameron will allow him to establish a reputation among voters  as strong and decisive (however unfairly).  And there is an even greater hazard at stake.  There is a risk that when the Press Complaints Commission is duly shredded and thrown to the four winds the law of unexpected consequences will apply.  Politicians would like nothing more than statutory press regulation - and that they would like it means that everyone else should beware of it.  There is more than a whiff of revenge in the air at Westminster.  MPs believe that they were badly treated during the expenses scandal.  The closure of title that tormented them for decades has sparked open anger in Fleet Street, but the dominant emotion in the Commons is barely-concealed delight.

None the less, the option of the papers simply going on as before no longer exists.  Change is coming - and in spades.  And it is opening up a unique opportunity as well as big dangers. This a moment to grasp that our media culture doesn't have to be like this.  That the way we live now - the way we've been living for years - isn't how Britain has to be.  One can run a good tabloid without wicked practices.  Papers can pursue gangsters and expose politicians without bugging the widows of dead soldiers or murder victims.  The police can have a relationship with journalists without money changing hands.  Parliament can make senior editors and managers think twice before coming before Select Committees and telling less than the whole truth.  Cameron should confirm today that he will send for a judge.  Hesitation will only help Miliband.


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