‘My own view is, and I still hold with this view, that in terms of the reaction of people, the reaction is going to be primarily Washington and not the country because I think the country doesn’t give much of a shit about it other than the ones we've already bugged…most people around the country think that this is routine, that everyone’s trying to bug everyone else, it’s politics. That’s my view.’
This was Nixon, speaking in the Oval Office on the morning of the 21st of June, 1972. Everyone’s trying to bug everyone else – the President’s opinion, and he knew what he was talking about: he was bugging the room at the time. But Nixon’s view about the public reaction turned out to be wrong. Eventually, the drip-drip of Watergate would come to saturate the whole country.
Now, in July of 2011, a massive phone-hacking scandal in Britain has attracted comparisons with Watergate. To be sure, the comparison isn’t exact, since Watergate was, in large part, an instance of the media investigating crimes committed by the executive; whereas the phone-hacking story has largely concerned crimes committed by the media itself – a case of the news becoming the news. But the scandal and the story is not confined to the media, for the connections extend to senior police officers and members of the political class – there being ‘various lines of interlinkage in the whole damn business’, as Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, said on tape, long ago.
Now, as then, the principal characters in the story have claimed that they know nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. The former editors of The News of the World (the tabloid at the centre of the scandal) didn’t know that systematic hacking was taking place at the paper; the boss of News International didn’t know why he was signing off massive secret payments to silence two high-profile victims of phone-hacking; and the Prime Minister didn’t know that his former director of communications, Andy Coulson, might have known about hacking when Coulson was editor of the NoW.
Where journalistic techniques aped the powers of the state, in their panoptic – indeed, panacoustic – ambition, what we now find are professions of ignorance and myopia from everyone involved.
And then there is the language of scandal, the particular idiom that gives it definition. Watergate, of course, took its fateful name from a building, but it seems wholly appropriate that the discourse of conspiracy was often framed in terms of hydraulic metaphors: surveillance and controlled revelation as ‘tapping’ and ‘leaking’ (by contrast, operations that failed to turn up any significant information were referred to by Nixon as ‘dry holes’). Fittingly, the clandestine unit approved by the President to plug leaks and wiretap his enemies was colloquially known as the ‘Plumbers’.
Such figurative language suggests an executive concern with the micro-management, the obsessive control and release, of power-knowledge as so much fluid. But given enough depth, liquid can also provide a medium of concealment; submerge your scandal in the ocean of information: ‘The problem is that there are all kinds of other involvements and if they start a fishing thing on this they’re going to start picking up tracks,’ says Haldeman to Nixon at one point. What we need to do, he says, is to ‘cut the whole thing off and sink all of it.’
So far, the language of the British affair seems less definite, but the term ‘hacking’ is, of itself, already interestingly evocative. It calls to mind the action of violent division, of assault, both invasive and transgressive, and it plays out in a wider contemporary climate of political attacks against vital public institutions of all kinds – the NHS, the BBC, libraries, universities – the divisive discourse of government ‘cuts’.
But such associations go beyond mere metaphor. For what has proved most disturbing about the slow unfolding of this British scandal has been the way it has momentarily rendered visible the cosy and equally shady relations between politicians, the police, and executives in the media; relations that one might define (after Peter Dale Scott) as parapolitical, in so far as they transcend the strictly political, and refer to the systematic structures of power in contemporary Britain.
Put like this, my anthropological inclinations make me think of sorcery – the sorcery of conspiracy. The shadowy technologies deployed by tabloid journalists are, I think, redolent of a kind of modernist witchcraft – conferring on their users extraordinary powers of interception, the capability of invading intimate spaces, even, shockingly, those still active spaces of the dead: the voicemail of victims of murder and terrorism. (In Fleet Street, such illicit techniques in general were collectively known as 'the dark arts'.)
But equally, sorcery discourse so often operates as an analytic of power, as a means of figuring out its applications and its secret circuits. As Peter Geschiere writes of witchcraft in modern Cameroon: ‘When I listened to my friends’ speculations about the hidden role of the nganga (healers) and their arsenal of occult tools, which supposedly were decisive factors in regional and even national politics, I was often struck by the parallel with the role attributed to public relations experts in American politics (and increasingly in Europe as well)…Their ability to bring success stems from their esoteric, and more or less magical, knowledge. The politicians’ gains and losses seem to depend less on the people’s support than on the effectiveness of the experts’ secret actions. Most importantly, both in Africa and in Europe, the intervention of such experts, loaded with esoteric knowledge, seems to remove power from the people. This is all the more reason to take witchcraft, as a form of political action, seriously.’
Perhaps all the more reason to reverse the equation: political action as a form of witchcraft.