Is Murdoch Berlusconi? And Is Britain Italy?

09/09/2010 10:29 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Brits are terribly confused.

The scandal that they thought had run out of gas is suddenly, as though by a deus ex machina, back full-steam. And yet it is the same scandal, with relatively few new details, being covered by the same news outlets. Nothing on the face of it has changed.

The Media Show on the BBC's Radio 4--in a discussion of the phone hacking charges and of Rupert Murdoch's and his company's involvement in it, and of the New York Times' recent upstart coverage of it--was world-weary in its sophistication. The scandal was still, in Britain, only being covered by the same old Murdoch foes, the Guardian, the Independent, and the BBC itself. Whatever the merits, the country was up against the fact that this was about Murdoch and Murdoch controls most of the media. So get real.

The show's presenters, together with much of the general commentariat, seemed unable to process that the New York Times, while not a direct player in the British media, had in effect made Britain itself the story--Britain and its relationship to the Murdoch family. The nation itself was now under the microscope. Murdoch had become Berlusconi, who, owning the nation's media, will not cover himself, and Britain had become Italy, with the larger world watching with incredulity and fascination (and condescension). Indeed, everything was the same, and yet the story was somehow algebraically larger and ever expanding.

Still, in the British bubble, a senior member of the government, taking note of the obvious change in tone of a newly aggressive non-Murdoch media, was able to say to me that he believed Andy Coulson--the Murdoch editor who is accused of knowing about and encouraging the phone hacking, and who is now the prime minister's communications director--is safe because there is nothing substantively new in the charges. No new bodies. He seemed not to be able to appreciate that it is precisely the point at which the subtleties of the scandal recede and the coverage expands that is most dangerous.

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