Press freedom is under a fierce coordinated assault from the British Establishment. In the guise of caring for so-called “victims of phone hacking”, the loyal cowards of Parliament are suppressing the handful of investigative journalists with News of the World who dared to probe into the royal family’s cover-up of the murder of Princess Diana.
At the end of the day of heckling, members of Parliament, whatever their party affiliation, came to the preplanned conclusion: The UK needs stronger press regulations. The burning issue at hand is the British monarchy’s order to tighten the nation’s system of press controls, which sits at very heart of the class system. The more loudly debated matters – the Murdoch dynasty’s business practices, tabloid sensationalism, police leaks to reporters and electronic eavesdropping – pale in comparison to the demonization of investigative journalism.
The made-up “crisis” has little to do with parents of disabled children or distraught widows of war veterans. What triggered Buckingham Palace to precipitate the parliamentary firestorm was the MI-5 surveillance program’s finding News of the World was reopening their investigation of who, exactly, ordered the assassination of the Princess of Wales, nee Diana Spencer. Scotland Yard soon contacted every principal in the Diana case, including Fayed Dodi, father of the disaffected princess’s companion, warning them not to accept interviews from NoW reporters. The timing of this latest cover-up was appropriately on the year of Diana’s 50th birthday, that is, if she had not been killed in the Paris incident.
Punishing the Message Bearer
Parliament summoned Rupert Murdoch, publisher of the NewsCorp group, to London on the pretext of his possible knowledge of phone hacking by the News of the World team. The underlying reason for his public humiliation, however, was to make a stern example for the liberal elite to restrain their republican sentiments.
As demonstrated in the 1999 referendum for Australia to leave the Commonwealth, Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper urged the dumping of the Governor General, the Crown’s representative in Canberra, in favor of an elected president.
His increasingly close friendship with Prime Minister David Cameron, one of the targets of the parliamentary interrogation, set off alarm bells in Buckingham Palace of an emerging campaign to trim the powers of the Queen and strip the royalty of their authority over the military and other core state institutions. New revelations of the Crown’s role in Diana’s death could have tipped public opinion in favor of dismantling the throne.
The spectacle in Parliament was not primarily focused on the Murdoch’s role in the hacking affair. Rather the collective wrath was focused on Andy Coulson, an editor with the News of the World tabloid who went on to become David Cameron’s communications director in May 2007.
In 2007, the 10th anniversary year of Diana’s death, Coulson led the investigative reporting team that cracked the shield of secrecy that surrounds Queen Elizabeth II and her brood of bluebloods. His information-gathering tactics might have been less than prim and proper, but that is completely forgivable when Buckingham Palace is more tightly protected than the vaults of the Bank of England.
NoW reporters were forced to resign in 2007 for replaying mobile-phone messages. This activity, unethical as it may sound, can hardly be equated with hacking. With enough button-pushing, even children can decode a voicemail key. For all the pious shock about “phone hacking”, our Internet society is rife with eavesdropping. Parents spy on their children’s website visits, companies read their employees’ emails, students snoop on their classmates – everyone is prying into someone else’s privacy. I-phones and handhelds with Blackberry are being tracked by dozens of marketing firms, police agencies, credit-card companies and intelligence services.
Social media is precisely that: media open to society. Yet our profession of journalism is expected – and now demanded by Parliament – to follow “ethical” rules that were framed when messages were sent on paper sheets inside stamped and sealed envelopes, a bygone era when news arrived months after the event.
By comparison with such kid’s stuff , Julian Assange of Wikileaks has sold for cash – folks, it’s called blackmail not voicemail – encrypted documents classified by governments or records of proprietary value to banks.
Assange is hailed as a media hero and protected by the British government, while Coulson is being flogged and flayed by rival newspapers and television news. The Guardian and Telegraph should be ashamed for turning against a journalist who was fulfilling his professional duty to go after a high crime.
Suppression of the Press
Voicemail decoding is a child’s pea-shooter compared with the Crown’s gigantic cannons of censorship – the Western world’s strictest privacy laws, press councils that monitor media morals, and the all-powerful Official Secrets Act. Under the OSA, British nationals and citizens of many Commonwealth member nations can be detained without charges for vaguely defined disclosures of state secrets. Under the constitutional monarchy, the ultimate offense of lese majeste (Latin for speaking the truth about the royal family’s wrongdoings) is guised under pretexts such as phone hacking.
The British monarchy is more than a dysfunctional Germanic family. The Crown is the hub of the state apparatus of the military, foreign intelligence, finance, land titles, religion, diplomacy and the residual imperial domain known as the Commonwealth. The “constitutional” monarchist state operates independently of Parliament and the citizens, and too often against democracy and justice. Constitutions and monarchy are, in reality, as incompatible as fire and ice.
The press and the profession of journalism were born and tempered under extreme oppression from the English monarchical system. Previous royal families brutally interrogated free-thinking writers in a special court of censorship called the Star Chamber, where the accused were subjected to torture to extract confessions of banned democratic sentiments. Editors found guilty of political treason and religious heresy against Divine Right were publicly burned at the stake, in same manner as practitioners of witchcraft.
The extreme punishments and restrictions on the press caused many a rebellious writer, including the father of modern journalism Thomas Paine, to go into self-exile in the American colonies, where editors like Benjamin Franklin produced illegal pamphlets in defense of the people’s rights against autocracy and arbitrary rule.
Real journalists agitated for the people’s cause against tyranny, from Paine who marched with George Washington’s army to Voltaire and his followers, John Reed in the Russian revolution and Edgar Snow during the liberation of China. Journalists were the inspirers of democracy and parliamentary governance. Now with their cowardly obedience to the throne in the NoW inquiry, Parliament has turned against a courageous journalist who dared to breach the walls of reaction.
The Diana Mystery
To their credit, the NoW team was unlike the other tabloids in being satisfied with tidbits of royal gossip. At stake in their daring attempts to penetrate the Queen’s inner circle was “the story of the century” – the unsolved mystery of which high-ranking personage – by name and title – inside the royal court gave the order to terminate the Princess of Wales.
That is obvious from the early accounts by eyewitnesses and the forensic evidence. I was on duty at The Japan Times at the moment of Diana’s denouement and our editorial staff quickly concluded from the first eyewitness accounts that she was assassinated. CNN interviewed a pair of American tourists who heard “two explosions, like bomb blasts” as they were walking nearby. As the pair rushed into the tunnel, an “official-looking man” was waving his arms and told them in English: “Get out now, do not come in!” That tape segment subsequently disappeared, never to be rebroadcast.
Later, press photographers who had been following Fayed Dodi’s limousine said that Diana stepped out of the damaged car and “walked on her own power” without assistance into the waiting ambulance. Instead of going to the nearest hospital, the ambulance went to a distant clinic, where the princess’s body was delivered in a coma.
The actual evidence and testimonies were suppressed in one of the greatest cover-ups of the 20th century, which continues to this day. The royalist establishment in Britain and on the Continent has swayed the judicial system to whitewash the case, heaping blame on a chauffeur who was definitely not drunk as accused on that tragic night in Paris.
The perversion of justice was obvious enough for London police detectives to open their files to investigative reporters. Whenever and wherever justice is thwarted by corrupted judges, the press becomes the final court of public opinion, the last line of defense for the public’s right to be informed of the facts. Now Parliament is shutting down vitally necessary leaks with the creation of a “transparent” information office to release sanitized police reports to the press.
Six months ago, the discovery of News of the World’s revival of the Diana story – stumbled upon no doubt by the MI-5 “anti-terrorism” program of system-wide telephone eavesdropping – triggered the royal plot to crush Rupert Murdoch and bring the NewsCorp media group under the heel of official censorship. The near-future scenario is for non-family members to dilute the board of directors. It can be assumed that some of those new directors will be agents of the Crown.
In a classic case of media misdirection, Prince Charles took the brunt of suspicion with a stiff upper lip. In an informal chat over a pint of ale, a British detective told me that the police discount the possibility of the husband’s role in the Paris event. His openness about the other woman and her lack of royalist pretensions indicate the since-tarred Crown Prince was being used as straw man to protect the actual suspect, a personage of higher rank.
What prompted News of the World to relaunch the Diana probe? Perhaps Coulson, at his new position in the Cameron government, made contact with a deep insider source, or possibly NoW chief editor Rebekah Brooke had received a packet of transcripts “tossed over the transom”. Both have been silenced and kept out of public sight. The New York Times’ main informant, the freewheeling gossip reporter Sean Hoare, was found dead a day before the parliamentary inquiry. With blood spilled and mouths gagged, the Diana case takes yet another turn into darkness.
The Royals have temporarily dodged the humiliation of the Queen’s abdication and relegation of the throne in to Madame Tussard’s Wax Museum, along the same aisle as the murderess of Mary Stuart. Yet rumors still abound about a terse few commands for an unthinkable act to save the royal family’s honor at high table over a dish of veal and peas. As folk tales inform us, mother-in-laws can be cold-hearted.
Perhaps a media expose of royal misconduct is simply too un-British for the British.. In their hearts, the English secretly long for the tragedy to unfold in the tradition of Shakespeare, an excruciating drama through a tortuous labyrinth of family betrayal. A ghost stalks the palace, the crime is be expatiated, and so the reign must end. The audience waits nervously: Will one of the heirs assume the role of Hamlet to avenge his fallen parent? The lads face the existential choice: To Be or Not to Be? That is the question.
Yoichi Shimatsu, Editor at Large at April Media, is former editor of The Japan Times Weekly and founding faculty member of the journalism schools at the University of Hong Kong and Tsinghua University in Beijing.