Tuesday 19 July 2011

Of Pies and Circuses

In Greece, they raise their hands. In Iraq, they throw their shoes. In Britain, we throw pies. This probably says a lot about us as a nation. Like everyone else, when I saw young comedian Jonnie Marbles lobbing a foam pie in Rupert Murdoch's face, as the elderly oligarch attempted to distance himself from years of criminal newsgathering, police corruption and government complicity, I felt like I was dreaming. One of the weirder dreams, where you have to ride a horse made of biscuits, or watch someone you know throwing a plate of gunk down the shirt of the most powerful man in the world. That shit doesn't happen in real life.

Many people have been asking me whether or not I condemn the pie. I would invite those people to stand in front of the mirror and say 'I condemn the pie' without collapsing into giggles. Chucking a foam pie in Rupert Murdoch's face was undoubtedly a silly thing to do- I, too, would have preferred the polite comeuppance being delivered by Tom Watson and other honest MPs to continue undisturbed- but it's hardly Baader-Meinhof, is it? Jonnie Marbles is no more a violent terrorist than Harpo Marx. He threw a pie, not a grenade. It was a stunt. It was, let's face it, a funny stunt. On its own terms, it was a successful stunt- and the problem with successful stunts is that they make headlines.

In terms of distracting attention from his wheedling refusal to accept responsibility for what went on at NewsCorp, Murdoch could not have bought better publicity unless he had personally hired a lackey to shoot his son in the middle of the hearing - an oversight which, at one point in the proceedings, he looked like he was regretting. During the Murdochs' questioning, NewsCorp shares jumped by five per cent, in part because of the pie, briefly splattering the entire debate open in a welter of wet foam, but also because the Sun King played his own part with tooth-aching finesse.

That was the real circus. The man who owns and dictates the news on three continents played to the crowd as a doddering, out-of-touch gentleman executive who had absolutely no idea why he had had back-door access to Downing Street for decades, no idea why his journalists illegally hacked the phones of grieving relatives and a murdered teenager, no idea why his newspapers seem to have bought and paid for the Metropolitan police.

The terrifying thing is that a foam pie in the face is almost certainly the closest thing to actual disrespect Rupert Murdoch has experienced for thirty years. The stunt gives the remaining pro-Murdoch press an excuse to distract attention from the ugly details of the snowballing hacking scandal- but at the expense of showing their fallen prince covered in gunge and baffled, like Emperor Palpatine appearing in an episode of Get Your Own Back. The whole point of the thrown pie as a comedy trope is that it's designed to humiliate, not to hurt - the 'heinous assault on an eighty year old man' line is unlikely to wash for long. One would hope that the police officers currently holding Jonnie Marbles in custody will remember that, rather than treating him like some sort of wanton confectionary terrorist, but unfortunately the only way to find that out would be to hack their phones, and decent people don't do that.

Hackgate is too big and purposeful a beast to be by distracted by a juicy pie for more than a few hours. The status quo has been turned on its head and shaken until the dirty cash falls out. The power elites in Britain and, increasingly, in the US, have been rattled to their core. Journalists across the media spectrum are remembering that their job is to report the truth, not twist the agenda to suit their bosses. The moral panopticon of the Murdoch press, manufacturing consensus for thirty years of war and the pursuit of profit with pictures of tits and celebrity chitchat, has been exposed as a circus of lies and corruption, lubricating politicians into lazy complicity, putting government ministers on its payroll to do its bidding, turning the police force into a bunch of hired lackeys and the justice system into a mercenary sham, pilfering the still-warm bodies of slaughtered soldiers and strangled schoolgirls for a story, any story. Murdoch is eating humble pie (I wish I'd been the first to make that pun) with or without Jonnie Marbles. Can you tear your eyes away, even for a second? No, nor can I.

And that's just what the British government is counting on. Today, in the middle of the select committee hearing, it was discreetly announced that the NHS will be opened up for privatisation- the very thing that nobody voted for, the thing that almost noone wanted apart from private healthcare firms, the politicians whose election campaigns they financed, and -guess who?- the Murdoch press. Last week's Open Public Services white paper threatens to confiscate state-provided welfare, social housing, schools, nursing homes, libraries, hospitals, hospices. The hacking scandal has made it almost to the doors of Downing street, but in the meantime, on the quiet, the agenda of Murdoch's tame cabinet is being signed and delivered. It cannot be permitted. If we believe in a fairer, more honest world, we can't allow ourselves to be entirely distracted by the circus.