Phone Hacking, Sorcery and Parapolitics


‘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.         

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Comment by Philip Swift on August 16, 2011 at 12:55am


Funny how things end up running together. Assertions from certain British politicians that the rioters will be held fully responsible for their actions were quite rightly turned right back on them. The right-wing idea at the moment is that, by defining the riots as 'criminality' pure and simple, one can just cut them out of their context, removing them from any kinds of politics all together. But, as Gary Younge said in today's Guardian newspaper, the criminal and the political are by no means incompatible categories: 


'far from being strange bedfellows, criminality and politics have always cohabited quite happily [think of Nixon]. Less than a month ago, some of those now bellowing for more law and order (the Murdoch press), the people who are supposed to enforce law and order (the police), and the people who make the laws (the politicians) were caught redhanded either committing or colluding in a range of systematic criminal acts during the phone-hacking scandal.'   


Funny too, how - to stick with the idiom of witchcraft - the direction of accusation is now going the other way.

For a good deal of the political discourse of this past week - fascinating, but at the same time deeply dispiriting, because so predictable - has sought to portray those who participated in the riots as fundamentally amoral and anti-social; embodiments of society's 'standardised nightmares' - as anthropologist Monica Wilson once described the capacity of the witch.


Comment by Philip Swift on August 8, 2011 at 7:34pm

Thanks John,


I must say that I haven't, and therefore would need to give this some thought.


A different point, but last week I was reading Tony Judt's perceptive and polemical book, Ill Fares The Land, when I came across the following passage. Describing the trend in Euro-American politics to progressively downgrade the role of the state as a provider of social services, Judt observes that, at the same time, the powers of the state have increased in other ways:


'Thanks to CCTV cameras, wiretapping, Homeland Security, the UK's Independent Safeguarding Authority and other devices, the panoptic control that the modern state can exercise over its subjects has continued to expand...[and] it is the liberty-vaunting Anglo-Saxon market societies that have gone farthest in these Orwellian directions'. 


It seems to me that the News of the World phone-hacking scandal isn't an exception - it wasn't even exceptional in Fleet Street - but is, rather, a symptom of these wider circumstances. Not only symptomatic, in fact, but also to some extent instrumental, since corporations such as News International encourage these trends (e.g., the turn towards privatization being presented as inevitable, etc).



Comment by John McCreery on August 3, 2011 at 5:06pm



Have you considered possible connections between monogaku and the modern wizardry of which you are now writing?

Comment by Philip Swift on August 3, 2011 at 3:48am


Thanks Keith.

I very much like your observation about witchcraft accusations, and one thinks of the related issue of accountability. When I was thinking about this, I had a quote by Evans-Pritchard in mind: 'I have never known a Zande admit his witchcraft'. This is, roughly, the basic position that's been adopted by all the major players in this story.


But also (and ignoring the earlier British anthropological distinction that used to be made between witchcraft and sorcery), I think one could compare the fundamental amorality and dangerous ambivalence of sorcery (as characterised by Bruce Kapferer, for instance) with the amoral operations and mercurial dispositions of the tabloids.


John, great points about experts and advertising as magic. Two somewhat sketchy observations. The first is just that, when Ruport Murdoch appeared recently before a committee of MPs over here, a number of commentators compared it to that moment in The Wizard of Oz, when the real, rather diminished wizard is revealed at work behind the curtain. And second, I find it interesting that Mauss, who theorised about the pre-modern powers of the 'magic circle' in his essay on magic - where the watching crowd gets taken over by the magician's performances - Mauss later came to realise that his description was very much a modernist one, more applicable to the surging affects of the masses in contemporary Europe.


In the Nixon tapes, once the Watergate scandal starts to dominate the nightly news bulletins, the President and his entourage begin to sound like men yearning for the powers of distraction wielded by the Maussian magician. Says Haldeman: 'The people in this country are thinking , for God's sake, get this Goddamn mess cleared up so we can watch the soap operas on television. They've ruined their whole television thing.'



Comment by John McCreery on August 3, 2011 at 1:25am
Philip, very nice, indeed. Reminds me of reading Ulrich Beck's Risk Society and thinking that the world he describes, in which only "experts" can identify and control invisible powers, resembled the world of Daoist magic that I studied in Taiwan and the world of Songhay sorcery described by Stoller in Fusion of Worlds. And, of course, there was Malinowski's prescient observation in Coral Gardens and Their Magic that the modern form of magic is advertising.
Comment by Keith Hart on August 2, 2011 at 4:29pm
Nice one, Phil. Two immediate thoughts. 1. That European political science of Africa seems to be about little else than witchcraft these days. and 2. Traditional social anthropology was less interested in the supposed activities of sorcerers or witches than in who was accused of witchcraft and why. In this latter respect, I find it interesting that a lot of media speculation is about whether Cameron and the Murdochs will escape being utlimately lynched by the public, with police chiefs and newspaper executives as their proxies. The hierarchy of it all is part of the social process and this too is something that the contemporary political science of African witchcraft is concerned with.


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