In 1931, Britain's Stanley Baldwin, fed up as politicians sometimes are with the media, blasted some of the press barons of his day, with the memorable description that they enjoyed "power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."
Mr. Baldwin, who served three times as prime minister, was especially incensed at two of his tormentors: Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express and Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail. Both used their newspapers as strident mouthpieces for their ideas and favourite politicians, of whom Mr. Baldwin did not figure. And their ideas were often quite silly, as in Empire Free Trade (a particular favourite of Beaverbrook, the Canadian), which led to a futile conference in Ottawa in the sweltering summer of 1932.
Since the birth of large metropolitan dailies, British press barons have sought power, influence and profit. Two of the most obvious in recent years - the modern-day equivalents of Beaverbrook and Rothermere - are Conrad Black, formerly a Canadian citizen-turned-British lord who's about to re-enter jail in the United States, and Rupert Murdoch, an Australian-turned-U.S. citizen with large holdings in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Murdoch has now been appropriately disgraced in the phone-hacking scandal involving the lowest of the low British tabloids, the News of the World, that he owned and closed in the wake of the scandal. Although much huffing and puffing has surrounded this scandal, anyone who's observed Mr. Murdoch or worked as a journalist in Britain can hardly be surprised.
Working in the U.K. quickly impresses upon an outsider that the press is fiercely competitive. Elements of it enjoy a cozy, incestuous relationship with the government of the day, especially the lobby correspondents who are fed by the prime minister's office. And while reporters incessantly search for the salacious and the scandalous, the proprietors of their papers seek to become somebodies in London high society.
An outsider also quickly understands that there are few depths to which the baser elements of the British tabloid press will not descend. (Remember that The Sun sells more copies daily than all the country's "quality" papers combined). Knowing this makes it easy to understand the shameful behaviour of Mr. Murdoch's minions at the News of the World. Considerations of privacy, probity and truthfulness have never figured highly in the tabloid world, especially at the bottom-feeder News of the World.
Knowing how a series of British prime ministers kowtowed to Mr. Murdoch (and selected other media barons), David Cameron merely being the latest, makes it easy to see why no one was willing to call Mr. Murdoch to account for his shoddy products. Indeed, a News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, became media chief for Mr. Cameron until he had to resign in January as the hacking scandal was breaking. Mr. Cameron himself has acknowledged that a "cozy and comfortable" world existed among the politicians, press and police.
The Murdoch defence is predictable: (im)plausible deniability. Neither he nor his son nor his top editor, he says, were apparently aware of what was going on. The truthfulness of this defence will be revealed by a public inquiry. Details aside, the culture of the paper - and the tabloid world in general - makes the hiring of private investigators and the hacking into private phone calls for dirt and gossip entirely understandable, even if Mr. Murdoch and his immediate underlings insist they knew little or nothing.
In the past three years, Britain has been rocked by three scandals: the collapse of the banking and financial world; the exposure of widespread rigging of expenses by MPs from all parties; and now the Murdoch muck. Three years, three scandals, and three institutions - finance, politicians, press - are justifiably besmirched.
Mr. Cameron is rightly embarrassed. Presumably, he won't be inviting Mr. Murdoch for drinks any more, either through the front door of 10 Downing St. or the back one that Mr. Murdoch said he used to enter, on orders from the Prime Minister.