The greatest television theatre– certainly political television theatre – I’ve ever seen was the Watergate scandal. I was living in Canada at the time and every night, the big American networks used to give an hour or so to the latest skeletons to fall out of the Nixon cupboard. Or maybe that’s the wrong image – maybe it should be a living body rather than a skeleton. For as the evidence mounted, a desperate President Nixon began lopping off his own political limbs until finally, on 30 April, 1973, he had no choice but to ask for the resignation of his two top aides, H R Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, along with White House Counsel John Dean. In the end Nixon resembled the Black Knight in the Monty Python sketch: his arms and legs had been cut off but he kept insisting “It’s just a flesh wound!”
The coverage of the News of the World phone-tapping scandal isn’t quite that level of theatre but it comes near. First Rupert Murdoch removes the News of the World, Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspaper. Then he amputates Rebekah Brooks, on whom he had always doted. And last night word came through that Les Hinton, his close associate for over fifty years and chairman of News International, was gone. It seems inconceivable that someone as powerful as Murdoch himself could be unseated, but that’s what they were saying about Richard Nixon until he headed for the helicopter and gave that famous double-V farewell.
What to make of it all? Well, let’s consider the television coverage of the whole affair: it’s been pathetic. Not in that there hasn’t been ample coverage or that the facts weren’t presented; but they came loaded with such a coating of emotion, they were near-unrecognisable. Millie Dowler, the little girls from Soham, 9/11 victims: you’d be forgiven for thinking News of the World staff had been responsible for all those deaths, rather than listening in on their conversations. Of course eavesdropping – illegal eavesdropping – is distasteful and sleazy, but as I said in an earlier blog, why the shocked expression? We’re all eavesdropped on and camera-watched within an inch of our lives every day of our lives. Some of it we give the OK to, the rest we know is going on but there’s nothing we can do about it. Every shop, every street, every road has its watching cameras; every email, every text, every phone-call has its supervisor. It's not Big Brother isn’t watching you: it’s the whole Big family.
Finally, imagine this. Your husband or wife or brother or sister – a main breadwinner – works in some far-flung corner of the Murdoch empire. If Murdoch the emperor is brought down and with him his whole dominion, and your loved one is tossed onto the street without a job: would you still nod with approval as the hunters go halloo-ing after this wrinkled 80-year-old in a baseball cap?