by SHAHED SADULLAH
Speakers highlighted the great dilemma now facing the British constitution, which was summed up simply as how to balance two basic principles of the British constitution - freedom of the individual and his right to privacy on the one had, and freedom of the media on the other. Any government in the UK would be very reluctant to impose any government controlled sanctions on the press and yet, it has been seen that even in a country like Britain, the media has shown itself incapable of regulating itself.
If somebody had said a fortnight ago that Rupert Murdoch's burgeoning media empire in the UK would, in the space of a fortnight, have had both its decline and fall, he would have been told to have his head examined. But a democracy moves in wondrous ways and it has been a joy to see a genuine democracy come into action and take full control of the situation, as it were.
The result of all this is not only that The News of the World has closed down after 168 years of publication – some would say that the closure came 168 years too late – but that Murdoch has had to withdraw his bid for the remaining 61 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting or BskyB which he did not own. Nor is that all. A judicial inquiry, will among other things, probably summon Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and News Corp chief executive Rebeka Brooks to try and find out how much they knew of what was going on, and a Parliamentary Select Committee will certainly be summoning them. The Select Committee will not be able to enforce the attendance of the Murdochs as they are not British nationals but Ms Brooks could find herself in jail if she does not attend. And going even further, the media regulatory body Ofcom will also be examining whether Murdoch is a fit person to hold the 39 per cent of BskyB that he does hold; if that goes against him, his ownership of The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun could also come under scrutiny. In fact, it is rumoured that there is already talk within Murdoch's organization of giving up The Times and The Sunday Times as they are running in the red to the tune of almost £88 million. Should that happen, Murdoch's grip on the British media, which two weeks ago had appeared to be total and unshakeable, would have all but disappeared.
The affair will have long term consequences on the question of freedom of the press and government's relation with the press. In a debate in the Commons which was supposed to give Murdoch the message that he should withdraw his bid for full control of BskyB – Murdoch in fact announced that he was withdrawing the bid only a couple of hours before the debate began – speakers highlighted the great dilemma now facing the British constitution, which was summed up simply as how to balance two basic principles of the British constitution – freedom of the individual and his right to privacy on the one had, and freedom of the media on the other. Any government in the UK would be very reluctant to impose any government controlled sanctions on the press and yet, it has been seen that even in a country like Britain, the media has shown itself incapable of regulating itself. The question that is now exercising all political minds is where does the balance lie, and the promised judicial enquiry, it is being hoped, will come up with some answers to that.
The parliamentary debate on Murdoch's media empire was a rare occasion when former prime minister Gordon Brown made an appearance at the House of Commons and gave a speech that could truly be called stirring. The important thing, however, was the fact that his speech differed considerably in tone and content from that of Labour leader Ed Miliband. Miliband emphasized on a cross-party approach to the problem in which the past and mutual wrangling over which political party was more cosy with Murdoch be put aside. It was a tone widely welcomed by the Tories for there is little doubt that they are the ones who have had closer connections with the Murdoch media empire. Gordon Brown, however, had himself been on the receiving end of attacks by Murdoch's papers including an entirely tasteless lead story about his young son suffering from cystic fibrosis. He had no need for such niceties and made a forceful case spelling out just how much he had done to try and control Murdoch's ever expanding media clutches while the Tories had done nothing. When questioned by the Tories about these moves, he pointedly asked how many times had the Tories brought forward a move in parliament to have News International investigated into. The answer was that even a fortnight ago, Prime Minister David Cameron had felt there was no need for a judge
In fact, the parliamentary debate and the judicial inquiry are matters in which the government has had to give in with considerable reluctance. Labour has seized the initiative here, but with Miliband's 'let us forget the past' approach, has not gone for the jugular. The truth is that neither party is effectively without sin on this issue and both have been dragged – the Tories more than Labour – to their present position of open hostility against Murdoch almost entirely by the weight of public opinion. Among many other things, it shows just how much democracy depends on education and awareness for its successful functioning.
This is something that could yet land at the Prime Minister's door. There is a huge question mark over his appointment of Andy Coulson, a former editor of The News of the World, as his Communications Director after he became Prime Minister. It is said that he was warned against the appointment by his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, and by former LibDem leader Lord Ashdown. More recently, the Guardian, which has been at the forefront of the revelations against the News of the World, has said that in February 2010, the paper had run a story which should have given Mr Cameron pause for thought. For legal reasons it contained only limited details of what went on while Mr Coulson was editor, including employing a private investigator who had served a seven-year sentence for perverting the course of justice and who had been charged with conspiracy to murder. Believing that Mr Cameron should be made aware in private of the full details, the Guardian passed these details on to the Prime Minister's senior advisor, Steve Hilton. In the Commons, however, Mr Cameron told MPs that the Guardian passed no significant private information about Mr Coulson to his staff. That, the Guardian has categorically said, is incorrect.
Doubtless, the judicial inquiry will reveal much more about how much the Prime Minister knew, or chose not to know. The non-Murdoch media, equally doubtless, will not let things be pushed into the background. The inquiry is supposed to take about a year; it could be a very uncomfortable year for