The News Must Flow

July 8, 2011

By far the most amusing incident of yesterday’s spontaneous combustion of the News of the World was Charlie Brooker’s pithy Tweet:

It instantly captured how much of the Left perceives its role in this saga; as a collection of plucky rebels facing down an evil corporate empire. However, this is entirely the wrong sci-fi-franchise-prism through which to view these events, not least because it presents the disturbing image of Tom Watson finding out that Rebekah Brooks is his mother in the sequel.

Rather, the best analogy for these events is Frank Herbert’s Dune. For those not familiar with the franchise, the Dune universe revolves around the control of a mysterious substance called ‘spice’ or ‘melange’. ‘Spice’ unlocks various mental abilities, as well as extended life, and is the key to interstellar travel. The only source of the spice is the planet Arrakis, a desert world inhabited by the Fedayeen. The novel is largely a sci-fi re-imagining of Lawrence of Arabia’s exploits in the First World War in securing Middle Eastern oil supplies for the Allies by encouraging the Arabs to revolt.

The reason why I present it as an analogy is that it makes very clear the link between control of the production of a given resource and control in the wider sense. If you control the resource someone requires to travel, then you control their capacity to travel. This is summed up in the novel by the phrase, “He who controls the Spice, controls the universe!”

Why is this relevant? It’s relevant because what’s at stake in the News of the World saga is not control over something as manifest as oil, but rather control over modes of accessing reality. People buy newspapers not to be informed about the world, but to be informed about the world in a particular way. When you buy a newspaper you buy into a worldview. As a result, newspapers tailor their modes of presentation to be line with what they assume their readers want. Over time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people base their attitude to the world on the information presented to them, and if this information is repeatedly presented in a given mode, people will take up that mode to inform their own attitude and judgements.

Clearly, control over the modes by which people access information is control – or at least strong influence – over their decision-making. And here we come to the heart of the analogy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with people tailoring a product to their consumers in order to sell more of that product, that’s how the free market operates. There is something wrong when control over a product becomes more important than selling that product. The contest in Dune for control over Arrakis between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, while ostensibly about profit, is in fact about that power. The Guardian, in the role of House Atreides, has always presented itself as a campaigning newspaper with little interest in profit. For News of the World, twinned with House Harkonnen and its red-headed Baron, they have always been a profit-seeking tabloid.

Baron Harkonnen Rebekah Brooks

No longer. The closure of the best-selling English language tabloid is not a move informed by mere avarice, but by cold political calculation. This decision will cost Murdoch money; the NotW, unlike much of the press, made a profit. It would’ve made a profit again in a couple of months when advertisers started crawling back. High-profile brands are remarkably resilient. People would once again buy it because they enjoyed gutter-tales of celebrity gossip and the angst of parents of murdered children. Its customer base still exists.

But to not make such a nakedly line-drawing move would have eliminated Murdoch’s influence with the political class. It would have handed politicians an ongoing stick to beat him with. His profits would remain, but his influence, and the scope of his newspapers to set the political agenda, would’ve been decreased. As it is, there will be reform, but it will be mitigated by the knowledge that its main target no longer exists. Murdoch has surrendered profit for political power, and in doing so has let the curtain fall back. No longer will it be possible to pretend that much of the press is truly only responding to its readers, rather than the agenda of its masters. As the profit margins of the press continue to decrease, and they are maintained as personal lobbying facilities by moguls, it will be increasingly difficult to see how their continued unregulated existence can be justified.

After all, he who controls the news about the universe, controls the universe. How can anyone have that power?

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