Scotland Yard have admitted they employed Neil Wallis, the former executive at the News of the World who was arrested today in the phone hacking inquiry, as an adviser to the commissioner until September of last year
The phone hacking scandal is still moving ridiculously fast and happening on several levels, but two elements of it are particularly interesting to me - the ones that involve organisational cultures and shifts in behavioural norms.
On the one hand you have the central story in the scandal - the culture of criminality at News International where ethical and legal lines were crossed in pursuit of stories. Once crossed, they became easier to cross again. Once they became easier to cross again, they became routinised. This is how an awful lot of bad behaviour becomes institutionalised - it’s a familiar story with (perhaps ironically) extra-salacious details in this case.
The other level is the network of relationships within the British establishment - in particular between politicians, journalists, and police. There’s plenty of evidence of legal lines being crossed here too, but there’s also plenty of instances of decisions like the hiring of Neil Wallis by Scotland Yard, which at the time probably felt like a good decision and now seems a desperately poor one. The revolving doors between parts of the establishment worked effectively and well at keeping things going - but this had an unforeseen side-effect, which is that when things stop keeping going there’s a sudden transition across the whole system. Nowhere is isolated. Actions - like hiring a Murdoch journo to advise on media strategy - which make total sense in a world where the Murdoch press dominate suddenly become poisoned and foolish in a world where they don’t.
The shift in behavioural norms in the first instance is gradual - the shift in the second instance is rapid and (this is what seems to unfair and baffling to the people caught up in it, I’d guess) retroactive.
Mark S was talking earlier today about the different metaphors and comparison points people are reaching for with regard to this stuff - the Arab Spring, the Catholic Child Abuse scandal, Watergate, and so on. From what I understand, though, another useful comparison point might be the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008: this is a systemic crisis, a crisis of resilience. Lehman wasn’t criminal or corrupt, but it existed in a system predicated on the idea that what eventually happened couldn’t happen - a shadow banking system that made complete sense but only as long as no big bank went under. Similarly, as long as it was inconceivable that News International would loosen its grip on Britain’s media and political agenda it made absolute sense to accomodate and work with that grip by hiring the likes of Coulson and Wallis.
The problem with onrushing systemic crises is that not dealing with them - shoring up the system rather than trying to defuse it or route around it - seems like the right strategy right up until the point that it stops being the right strategy. So when things unravel it happens very fast and dramatically. It’s a reminder of quite how much of power is based on people simply backing a winner, the steady accumulation of bets so safe they don’t even feel like bets. Until it turns out they were bets after all.