I’ve been puzzling over the idea of Nationhood over the last few weeks, and Murdoch’s unceremonious hacking off of the News of the World limb from the News International body yesterday got me puzzling even harder.
As Virginia Woolf quite rightly points out in Three Guineas, there’s not a single blade of grass, clod of earth or splinter of rock of Britannia’s green and pleasant land that I can claim ownership of. So, she argues, I should hold no loyalty to it. It’s a good argument in that it hits me in one of the places I care most about–my wallet. Woolf also describes how the social, political, and monetary institutions which hold all the power in our country dedicate themselves to monopolising power and suppressing all those outside their circles.
It was an argument that had me convinced up until Allegra asked me to watch a film with her. When she’s said that she wants to spend time with me, it’s normally watching a film together or TV or something like that. For the last ten years or so, I’ve not understood that. We’re not talking, we’re not interacting, we’re just passively consuming. How is that, ‘spending time together’? But this time it finally clicked: We’re sharing an experience and building shared memories. The film itself acts as a foundation and, perhaps more importantly, a reference point for years to come. How many times have you said, ‘it’s like that bit in the film where…’, or, ‘if I was that character, I would never have done that…’, or even picked up phrases and made them part of your daily speech? Without knowing the origin of those sayings, without the context, they mean almost nothing.
As a nation, we have shared experiences and memories. We talk amongst ourselves and the same opinions come up again and again. Now, those shared experiences are dictated by the media we are fed. They’re dictated by the films shown in the cinema, the news shown on the TV, the history taught in schools. And the people who control those things are the empowered elite Woolf warned us about.
But there’s also something else, something more nebulous. It’s the way we interact with people, with strangers and friends and family. There are a set of rules which govern these interactions. These are rules I’ve had to learn by route so I’m well aware of their all-pervasive existence.
For example, you meet a stranger in the coffee room at work. You’re both waiting for the kettle to boil. Now, you have to talk to each other. I don’t know why but that’s just the rule. You don’t even know each other’s names and you want the conversation to end when you’ve made your drinks. I’m sure each culture has its own rules as to what you talk about, but in Britain it’s the weather. Being in the same geographical location at the same time, it’s the one thing you can both be sure you have in common. We even have little social rituals that come with different types of weather: Barbeque weather, for instance. If the kettle takes a little longer to boil than we thought, we can talk a little about barbeques. Or, if there’s a Bank Holiday coming up, we can comment on the fact that it always rains on a Bank Holiday and there’s loads of jobs around the house we should be doing but probably won’t get around to. If needs be, we can talk about those jobs.
Or there’s the strange habit we British seem to have to mocking our friends. An American friend of mine commented on this and how she found it really, really odd. There she was, in a meeting of well-paid and highly qualified professionals, and they took to mocking each other. Not in a malicious way, not out of spite, but in a casual way that had them all laughing at each other. Allegra and I discussed it and realised it was a way of making people feel more at ease with each other, of breaking down the barriers between strangers, off marking someone as accepted into the group.
This brings me to corporate personhood and, of course, The News of the World. The idea that corporations should have the same innate rights as human beings is, frankly, disgusting. It’s a way for individuals to hide behind something that doesn’t really exist, to push all their sins onto a phantom scapegoat and carry on doing exactly what they were doing before. The individuals responsible for the phone hacking at The News of the World jumped ship ages ago and Murdoch is sacrificing innocent people behind the phantom of the corporate individual to protect them.
But then there’s the idea of corporate culture. Despite not being able to claim ownership of a single staple, paperclip or Biro of the corporate body, an office of people working together develop their own relationships, their own social interactions and rituals, their own ideas of what’s, ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t, their own ways of starting conversations and their own ways of marking someone as accepted into the group. And, in the same way the embedded national power structures ensure that certain types of people with certain points of view succeed, the same thing happens in companies. Whatever mentality that deemed hacking into innocent people’s–victims of crimes and tragedies–mobile phones was acceptable must be something deeply rooted in those offices. It must have grown from that shared corporate identity. So maybe closing the paper isn’t all that unreasonable.
The question that needs answering is how much is it the culture of The News of the World, and how much is it the culture of its parent company, News International. There are two editors under whose leadership the hacking went on: Rebekah Brooks; and Andy Coulson. Coulson is being thrown to the wolves, but the wagons are circling around Brooks, promising to protect her at all costs. That she’s now Chief Executive of News International goes a long way to answering where the line between News International’s culture and The News of the World’s culture lies. I think Murdoch is sacrificing The News of the World and handing the public Coulson’s scalp in the hopes no one tries too hard to find a definite answer to that all-important question. I think that makes it all the more important to rip the answers from the individuals who make up his company.
So, what of my nation? I owe the power structures of the geo-political entity of the United Kingdom fuck all… kind of. I love the NHS and frequently remind myself of how lucky I am that I have access to free health care. And then there’s the benefits I have access to if I lose my job or my able body. There is some attempt to care for their people there. So maybe I owe them a little, a very little. But the idea of Britain, the phantom of Britannia, controlled and defined as she is by those with the money and power to impose their will on ‘the faceless masses’… I may not like the idea any more than I like the fact I have to pay £1.33 a litre for petrol, on top of road tax, on top of car insurance, on top of the MOT, but I can’t deny it. And I can’t deny the usefulness in knowing what to do while the kettle boils or, in fact, having a set of shared experiences and expectations which I can use to interact and exchange ideas with my fellow human beings any more than I can deny the usefulness of being able to drive in to work every day.
All this pontificating hasn’t lead me to any answers, but it’s at least made the questions a bit more clear. As for Murdoch, well, my personal opinion is that the sooner his entire clan are put against the wall and shot and his media empire broken up beyond recognition, the better. But my sympathies are with the two hundred staff stabbed in the back yesterday. It’s not their fault, and we may never know what they’re actually guilty of, if anything.