A Conspiracy of Mutual Interest

The public debate and interrogation of the ‘hackgate’ scandal is so copious that one hardly knows where to start. However, an aspect of the story that strikes me as prescient, yet largely ignored, is how the affair has exposed the overlapping networks of power that form a nexus of controlling elites in our capitalist democracy. The seemingly endless revelations highlight how the political/media/corporate complex is intricately linked through matrices of friendships, acquaintances, business partnerships, familial ties, abstract loyalties and social debts. Well this is no big deal right? We all knew that. But what recent events have crystallised is how these interconnections form a socio-cultural hegemony based almost entirely on elites knowing and serving each others interests in order to maintain, on a micro level their own position of power, and on a macro level, the overarching hierarchies of the social system.

Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci used the term hegemony to define how a society’s dominant class configures the processes, and creates the discourses, that effect mass social control. Such social control is maintained no only through coercive means (laws, police, judiciary) but also ideological conformity has to be affirmed through cultural avenues such as education and the mass media. These conduits of information persuade the subordinated classes to spontaneously consent to the rules and values of the political and intellectual elite. This serves to negate the possibility or even the need for dissent, because the organisational apparatus enforces the inevitability of lived experience within the, already apparent, social structure. Any instances of dissent against the dominant classes are represented as pathological and are thus summarily punished, through legally sanctioned punitive measures, but also symbolically, via the strident critique of the media propaganda machine. The hegemonic organisation of society is so pervasively ingrained into culture that it is more or less wholly accepted by the masses as the civilising, didactic role of the elite.

Centralisation of ownership in a pervasive media environment is a key tool with which hegemony is affirmed. Of course, in a totalitarian regime the state directly controls the media and is therefore able to disseminate its ideologies directly. In democracies, where ‘free speech’ and an open media market are lauded as vital components of open debate and informed citizenship, the managing of information has to be much more sophisticated. In this regard the construction of particular discourses, which become naturalised as ‘truth’ (particularly through the populist tabloid strands of the media), is imperative. For example, tabloid culture creates demonised ‘others’ that the - presumably - law (and moral) abiding silent masses should be afraid of. The almost forensic focus on immigrants, minorities, gays, single mothers, activists, unionists, students, the unemployed, public sector workers etc etc etc, draws attention to the perceived threats of individuals and groups who, in actuality, have very little power. This obfuscates critique and interrogation of those at the very top of society who really affect the social conditions of the masses on a direct basis, whether it is economically, politically or culturally. Because most of us actually belong to one or more of these categories the real genius of media manipulation is how it places such groups in opposition to one another, rather than highlighting their common struggle.

Furthermore, in order to help us deal with the fear and uncertainly of these inferred external dangers we are fed a constant diet of inane celebrity culture, reality television and premiership football – in other words highly elaborate means of escapism that make no difference in our lives but somehow, probably through some kind of vicarious false consciousness, inspire us to maintain a monumental level of consumption and bury our critical heads in the sand. In many ways we are complicit in this. There is some truth to the notion that the public gets what it wants and we all have the choice to turn off. There is, for me, a fundamental hypocrisy in a public that doesn’t mind if Sienna Miller, Prince Harry or Gordon Brown have their privacy violated but is suddenly outraged when it is Milly Dowler or victims of 7/7. Of course there is a difference, but what are we really outraged about? Hacking itself, or just that the right people at the right time are being hacked? Can rabid journalists break the law when the target is deemed inconsequential? The popularity of the News of the World encourages a sensationalist news culture in which the “interest of the public” (i.e. what will sell) far outweighs a more political understanding of “public interest”.

But how much choice do we really have? The huge, centralised media monopolies like News Corp create a mainstream news agenda that dissolves serious interrogation into spectacle and superficiality. Whether illegal hacking is involved or not it is tabloid culture more generally that sets an agenda that is almost inescapable and inescapably banal. Media conglomerates make it largely impossible to circumvent tabloid culture even if one wants to. Murdoch’s vast network of media outlets affords him an incredible autonomy over what the world sees and hears. It has been commented that Murdoch has no ideology or political motivation beyond an endless desire for money and power, but that is an ideology which undoubtedly underpins the kind of media we receive. One that is fundamentally beholden to markets thus invariably commodified, highly populist, simplistic and unable (or unwilling) to truly hold the elites to account. Until hackgate, Murdoch’s acquisition of total ownership in BskyB was proceeding almost without question (once Vince Cable was removed), which would have enabled him an even firmer control over the apparatus of information dissemination. The corporatisation and centralisation of the media is still continuing despite a supposedly more open, diverse and interactive communications age.

The building of this kind of power requires political acquiescence. Politicians, Corporate owners and Media moguls are not interested in informing the citizenry or helping to create a nation of critical thinkers because that could lead to a much more rigorous questioning of not just the individuals in power but the way system works to keep them there. What the hackgate scandal exposes is just how much the interests of the different branches of the dominant classes are interconnected, not just on an overtly political level, but on a social level too. It is easy to produce a rather archaic working-class assault on the Old Etonian front bench, the chipping Norton set and the jobs for the boys (and girls) culture, as the foundation of an old fashioned class system. However, cultural hegemony spans across the political divide of left and right. Gordon Brown rose recently in parliament, an unusual step for a former Prime Minister, to berate News Corp and tabloid culture. In an interview with the BBC he went onto discuss how he cried when he learned that the details of his son’s medial condition were to be splashed on the front page by the ‘sewer rats’ at the News of the World. One pertinent question is why didn’t his government, or previous governments ever do anything about tabloid culture or what many have suggested was the excessive influence of Murdoch. The answer is they form part of the Political/Media/Corporate complex and they know, perhaps even only on a subconscious level (but for many it is on a pragmatic level too) that their power is inextricably linked. There may have been no “specific” discussion but make no mistake, Andy Coulson was hired by David Cameron not despite his relationship to the News of the World, but because of it.

When the term conspiracy arises, what comes to mind is darkened boardrooms, secret meetings, intricate plots and faceless couriers doing the bidding of shadowy ‘organisation’ men. Films revel in such narratives, and the modern imagination seems to desire buried “truths” behind iconic historical events such as 9/11, the moon landings and the Kennedy assassination. Occasionally the entire façade of organised corruption is revealed, Watergate being the most obvious example. Hackgate is being touted, by some, as the British version of the affair that claimed the Nixon presidency, and maybe it will cause a realignment of the individual power dynamics.What it will not do is destroy the overarching structure. Murdoch, Brooks and Cameron may be displaced -  in most conspiracies ‘a few bad apples’ get the blame - but the essential mechanisms of hegemony will, most likely, be left firmly in tact. Think about the huge reorganisation of the financial system which was “inevitable” in the wake of the financial crisis….what ever happened to that? If we deign to call modern society conspiratorial it is a far more sophisticated concept than a room full of shady power brokers hatching diabolical plots. It is a conspiracy that doesn’t require definitive plans or specific goals, just a recognition of the mutual interests of those at the top and the decisions that need to be made to preserve the status quo.