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"...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
I have been watching with a growing sense of awed, horrified amusment, the escalation of the News of the World phone hacking scandal. From the British parliament baying sanctimoniously for blood to the smug opportunism of Ed Milliband (Am I the only person convinced he's the Heat Electric tortoise reincarnated?), the stony stoicism of Rebekah Brooks to the arrogance of Rupert Murdoch, the whole drama has been singularly unmissable.
Anyone who's read Piers Morgan's unforgettable memoir about his time as the darling of Murdoch's British empire would have had an insight into the snuggling up the red top tabloids (and the press in general) do with British politicians. It's a relationship built of loathing, one trying to use the other in a game of political power-broking and influence. Murdoch's ability to reach out to a huge slice of the electorate made him a political power broker, parties anxiously sought his backing - none more so than the Labour party, which has traditionally enjoyed Murdoch's support (but had to work damn hard for it).
Now the contagion has spread to the States, where a senator has started raising questions and will no doubt soon find himself at the head of a braying pack of political power-brokers desperate to minimise the massive power of Murdoch's US media holdings, including The Voice of Reason, Fox News.
This isn't about phone hacking at all; mercy me, no. And it's not about the freedom of the press, although it raises many questions about that most important of freedoms. This is about breaking the power of a man who was too powerful and too influential for his own good - and whose power and influence have waned sufficiently, because of the power of online communications, to embolden politicians to finally stand up to him.
They want to take him down, baby. And if Milliband and Cameron can stop sniping at each other for two seconds, they'll do it, too.
Will this be a blow for freedom of the press? I doubt it. It's more about the freedom of media oligarchs to extort politicians - and the freedom of politicians to do cosy, corrupt deals with media.
We can only look forward to an equivalent scandal breaking out in the Middle East, when journalists are found out to be lifting handsets and using telephones to call and verify facts rather than just hammering out press release and newswire copy.
BTW, This fascinating piece in Foreign Policy does a much better job of discussing the above than I did...