Love of competition is the enemy, not the phone hackers.
For a while it was a new victim of phone hacking every day; now it’s a new suspicion over who was involved. The phrase – phone hacking – has already been repeated so often that it has begun to lose all meaning. We shouldn’t let ourselves forget that it denotes a nasty invasion into people’s lives by groups who had decided that their profiteering represented “The public good”.
The only surprise amongst the revelations is that people are surprised. Successive governments facilitate and promote competition for profit, yet an electorate that liked that idea enough to vote for it again and again seems not to recognise the ugly results it spews out.
Michael Oakeshott called it the “Enterprise association”. “There will be more freedom, more choice,” is David – ‘Dave’ – Cameron’s stock answer to a whole host of questions. The man, like Blair, like Major, like Thatcher, loves the free market: the competition – and the scale of the Neo-Liberal propaganda victory is such that Dave’s public is fully convinced too. Romanticising perpetual competition – usually just a fight for profit – as “freedom” has been brilliantly effective in creating a competition consensus within the electorate. We hear “freedom” and think of it as A Good Thing, and even slightly less ambitious terminology like “cutting red tape” so that businesses can “get on with it,” sounds convincing – no one enjoys unwanted interference in their lives.
Somewhere along the way, the connection has been lost between what constitutes freedom for the individual or the local shop, and what is tantamount to an invitation for multi-national news corporations to do as they please. We, the electorate, like the idea of freedom for us, but struggle with the idea that it is a vessel for things like allowing the Press Complaints Commission to be made up of members of the press. The press are free to self-regulate themselves and practices such as phone hacking become endemic – our jaws shouldn’t drop, really. After all, what better way to get the most exclusive story, most quickly – and make the most profit – than by breaking the law?
Told that competition is A Good Thing, told that they should be free to beat off others for a profit; is it strange that newspapers felt fine in ignoring the illegality of what they were doing?
It isn’t, but for the people who voted for “freedom” it’s easier to think that way. When the dirty consequences emerge, men like Andy Coulson – former News of the World editor – work as useful scapegoats, not just for those who acted with him, but for the ignorance is bliss man on the street. It is more comfortable to assume that there was one rogue element than to realise that the problems are symptomatic of a society which keeps voting for free competition – encouraging this relentless scrap for profit.
So it is that the emerging reality around phone hacking is still being met with easy answers. As it becomes clear that the practice may well have been known about and okayed in high places at the News of the World and elsewhere, the industry itself becomes the scapegoat – it needs reform, our MPs judiciously decide. The point is being missed. Whilst Cameron calls for tighter controls on the press, he continues to pursue a campaign to bring free choice to the NHS. His “NHS reforms will ensure fair competition,” we are told, though he leaves the “for profit” bit for businesses to assume.
So as we clean up one race for profit which left so many of the spectators hurt, we embark on another. It is the kind of contradiction one might expect from a man who came to power noting how the greed of the under-regulated bankers had been allowed to thrive by Labour, whilst coining the phrase Big Society – a campaign for individuals to be given more power.
Bankers, media glitterati and – let’s not forget – MPs have all been vilified for their greed, and demands for tighter regulation have quickly followed. But at what point do we begin to question the love of choice, competition and freedom which meant the regulation wasn’t in place already? At what point do we stop “freeing” these industries in the first place? That is the constant in each of these scandals – that and people, but we can’t have rid of them, unfortunately.
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