This article was originally published in Domus 951, October 2011
The phone hacking scandal burnt like wildfire through British society with devastating speed. It engulfed media, politics, celebrity, global corporate culture, and the private lives of those unfortunate to be involved in apparently newsworthy tragedies. Its overreaching scope is as dark and disturbing as if it had been scripted by James Ellroy. The conspiratorial relationships that were revealed between press, politicians and police represent nothing less than a failure of the architecture of British democratic society— a complete collapse of civic infrastructure.
That this crisis should flow from a global media corporation should be no surprise. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation combines radical corporate capitalism with technologies of communication that are evolving with incredible speed. In this murky imbroglio the distinct spaces of the personal, the political, the press and the police have been blurred by News Corp's activities. Its operation and influence has systematically transgressed boundaries within the organisational structure of society.
The flashpoint of the affair was the revelation that private investigators working for the News of the World had hacked a murdered schoolgirl's voicemail. This horrific invasion of privacy, the cracking open of the most tragic and despairing of spaces—the messages of desperation left by those who loved her, never to be heard, intercepted by a news organisation in pursuit of a circulation-boosting scoop—was the key moment when the phone hacking story boiled over into public outrage. This was the moment of realisation that a fundamental threshold had been transgressed. Milly Dowler's case may set the underlying disturbing phenomenon in horrific and tragic light, but the real narrative of the story is the apparent complete erosion of thresholds and boundaries between spheres we imagined were distinct— spheres that must be distinct for a democratic society to function. When these thresholds are compromised, the conceptual architecture of the state, of law, of power, as well as our own sense of personal privacy evaporates.
Conspiracy, as Kevin Costner's character puts it in Oliver Stone's JFK, is like a looking glass. It is a landscape of opposites where "white is black and black is white". Here, that means institutions that operate in a manner opposite to their apparent remit: the media manipulating the political agenda, politics serving private corporate interest, the police operating with favour, the private becoming public. Conspiracy like this rearranges the spatial organisation of the institutions of power. The significance of this spatial organisation is its establishment of the autonomy of institutions—the separation of church and state, the relationship of the judiciary to parliament and so on.
Here we have seen the distinct spaces between a commercial organisation, the press, police and politics merge in ways that have compromised their proper function and perverted the powers invested in them. We could then regard this conspiracy as News Corp's clandestine redrawing of the cartography of governance, a remapping of the institutional spatiality of British society that introduces wormholes, secret passages, trap doors, erects dead ends, blockades and diversions. In the unfolding phone hacking scandal, the idea of the architecture of power became both literal and metaphorical. In the dcms select committee hearing, for example, Rupert Murdoch was asked about the nature of his visits to Downing Street:
Jim Sheridan: Mr Murdoch senior, I have a number of short questions for you. Why did you enter the back door at No. 10 when you visited the Prime Minister following the last general election?
Rupert Murdoch: Because I was asked to.
Jim Sheridan: You were asked to go in the back door of No. 10?
Rupert Murdoch: Yes.
Jim Sheridan: Why would that be?
Rupert Murdoch: To avoid photographers at the front, I imagine. I don't know. I was asked; I just did what I was told.
Jim Sheridan: It is strange, given that Heads of State manage to go in the front door.
Rupert Murdoch: Yes.
Jim Sheridan: Yet you have to go in the back door.
Rupert Murdoch: That is the choice of the Prime Minister, or his staff or whoever does these things.
Jim Sheridan: So was it under the Prime Minister's direct instructions that you came in the back door?
Rupert Murdoch: I was asked would I please come in through the back door.
The significance of the back door is its position within the architectural hierarchy of 10 Downing Street, bypassing the normal sequence of entry to a terraced house. Evading the thresholds of entrance sequences (front door, hallway, etc.), entry by the back door at once enables Murdoch's passage and conceals it from view. Here, the occupation and use of the architecture of No. 10 literally describes the transgression of normal public/private threshold.
The language of the discourse around the hacking scandal suggests other architectural conditions. A key example is the often-quoted phrase describing the "revolving doors" between News International and the Metropolitan Police, and between News International and Downing Street. This phrase highlights the architectural condition of threshold.
The image suggests a door between institutions that should remain spatially distinct, and a revolving door suggests an even more specific kind of relationship. A revolving door never shuts, it blurs the threshold condition even more, giving way when pushed, rotating to allow entry without the formality of opening and greeting or the mechanical threshold of the lock. The architectural imagery suggests boundaries of such porosity that one space bleeds into another, that the point where New Scotland Yard becomes Fortress Wapping or No. 10 is indeterminate.
The underlying fear within the conspiracy is that the public spheres of politics and law enforcement—as well as the private space of intimate communication—were not only breached but also completely absorbed by the corporate entity of News Corp. The hierarchies and thresholds of civic life were dissolved into the undifferentiated horizontality of Murdoch's corporate space.
In the wake of this conspiracy comes the suggestion that this presents a moment of change, an alteration in the relationship of the media and politicians that has existed for the last 30 years or so, and a chance to reconfigure the mechanisms of democracy. In relation to this idea, the image of transparency is often invoked. It is a word that conjures an image where the machinations of society, institution or organisation are made visible, placed into the public domain.
The rhetoric of transparency seems to derive from an architectural condition. More specifically, its corrective quality echoes architecture's own interest in transparency. For modernist architecture, the idea of transparency challenged traditional notions of interior and exterior, and in doing so reconfigured the relationship between public and private. Dissolving the barrier of the wall, so it might be argued, dissolved the hierarchies of the old order— actually and rhetorically. Transparency then is an architectural strategy that makes public, and thus apparently accountable, the private spaces once concealed within neoclassical or Beaux-Arts solidity. Transparency then, is part of modernism's rhetoric of truth. And it is this simplistic notion of transparency that is mobilised in current political discussion.
If we are looking either to understand or extend the metaphor of "transparency" as used in contemporary political discussion, perhaps we should learn from architecture's own experience of the limits of transparencies in ideological operation. Think perhaps of Dan Graham's pavilions, or perhaps in SANAA's conception of transparency. Here, the idea of transparency becomes more complex. The glass surface, once employed because of its see-through-ness, amplifies other characteristics. Manipulations of curve, angle, lighting, and so on, so that its properties of reflection become the spectacle, promoted over direct transparency. Rather than seeing through, we find ourselves looking at an image of ourselves and our circumstance reflected back, sometimes clearly, sometimes as a distorted or ghostly image.
The contemporary interpretation of transparency is then very different to its modernist root. Rather than assume an idealised positive effect, it presents transparency as a problem, suggesting that as much as we might see through, we also end up looking in the opposite direction, that as soon as we train our gaze on a subject through something, it becomes framed, obscured and mediated by the very mechanism that is allowing us to look. The phone hacking scandal also sets into relief the way in which communication and media have radically altered traditional spatial and organisational principles. An entity like News Corp constructs a continuous space that extends from the voicemails of Milly Dowler to clandestine discussions with Prime Ministers, to the hectoring rhetoric of a Sun headline to the apparent respectability of a Wall Street Journal leader, to geostationary satellites, to its nasdaq stock listing and far beyond.
This corporatised media space both extends and challenges Marshall McLuhan's understanding of media as an extension of our nervous system. He argues that, for example, TV is an extension of our optic nerve and radio extends our ears. This anthropomorphic image of distended sensory organs suggests a naturalisation of media: that TV cameras, microphones, broadcast installations, the electromagnetic spectrum and the full array of broadcast technologies are in effect no different from our own bodies, and that contemporary media is, in effect, an inevitable techno-biological evolution.
In casting media as an extension of human sense, McLuhan attempts to position media as a natural condition of the human habitat. Yet media is an entirely unnatural invention, pure culture rather than an inevitable consequence of technobiological determinism. Media, as Rupert Murdoch understands it, is not natural but something that must be continuously constructed.
McLuhan is right though to describe media as a spatial phenomenon. It performs spatially by collecting and distributing information that distorts our experience of geography. Media forms connections, relationships, adjacencies; it alters distances in time and space and collapses geography. Its techniques of assembly and editing (the jump cut, fade and juxtaposition, for example) and its sequencing of experience into genre and schedule remake the world in its own image. Think for example of the corporate slogans: Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today" or Starbucks "Geography is a flavour". These trademarked mantras suggest the physical world reorganised by technology, media and experience; they propose that the base architecture of the planet is no longer a function of cosmology and geology but of the techniques and effects of media.
This effect then allows an entity like News Corp to exist—this is the ecosystem that it both inhabits and generates. It is also the condition that traditional spatial organisations find themselves within, subsumed by the flows and currents of globalised corporate media. The scandals that have rocked such fundamental institutions in the uk are a function of the tension between these two conceptions of space, the effect of erosion on the static edifices of traditional governance by the dynamic flows of contemporary media.
We should, though, be careful to distinguish media's many forms. Here, McLuhan may help us again. He describes a light bulb as information, but suggests that we don't recognise it as information because it is information in pure form. In reality, media is seldom pure. In the processing of a raw event into media, information is transformed from its pure state into, to use the journalistic term, "story". We might imagine then a spectrum that to one side originates with this pure form of information, becomes media and darkens towards propaganda at the other end of the spectrum.
Elements of News Corp's empire—the Sun, the News of the World, Fox News, and so on—operate as entities that while presenting themselves as sources of information are in fact a form of partisan politics, leveraged lobbying and devices that attempt to influence political policy in ways that often serve Murdoch's self-interested commercial interests (in the uk this is evidenced most explicitly by News Corp's agenda against the BBC and the euro). Against this hyperprocessed media, we might cite Wikileaks as its polar opposite. Here, its information dumps of pure, unrefined information exist without the contextualisation, analysis, editing or framing that traditional media bring to bear.
Though they may be entirely different types of information, Wikileaks and News Corp's phone hacking suggests there is a crisis in the ability to construct a functioning architecture of the state within the field of modern media. Both obliterate the boundary between the public and private— be it state secrets or a celebrity's extra-marital shenanigans. Both suggest a transformation of the idea of the private driven by the technologies of media and communication.
Increasingly data is cached on remote servers protected by encryption and passwords. These distant servers are always accessible through the omnipresent "cloud". Here we begin to perceive the pretzel logic of contemporary media space: that our private data already exists everywhere. This is a radical counterintuitive spatial inversion, a prolapse of the traditional relationship of public and private, that reminds us again of the looking glass: "White is black and black is white."
The phone hacking scandal exposed the failures of traditional institutions to maintain boundaries, distinctions and thresholds against the spectrallike entity of contemporary corporate media. It has demonstrated their inability to control the pervasive flows that have ghosted through their structures, distorted their operation, and bent their purpose. The radically transforming nature of information, media and communication and the rise of corporate entities challenge the very idea of the state, threatening to dissolve its body into their flux. They are phenomena that have altered the dynamics of contemporary power and democracy profoundly, have remapped its topography and spatial organisation and transformed the ecosystem within which democracy attempts to exist.
In the wake of the scandal, politicians—and media—are calling for the re-establishment of what they term "trust" in the fundamental institutions of society. Coming after scandals of MPs' expenses and the banking crisis, consistent institutional failure has become a hallmark of early-21st-century culture. Without serious reconstruction of the architecture of state, the rhetoric of trust will be absorbed and assimilated by the very interests that it seeks to control. In the absence of a new architecture of state, one that recognises the new landscape of virtual information as a spatial crisis, the simplistic demand for transparency will be reflected back in a looking-glass inversion that will only accelerate the dominance of corporate media over democracy.
 Excerpt from the transcript of oral evidence taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday 19 July 2011.
Sam Jacob is a director of FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste). Current projects include the BBC Drama Production Village and CIAC, an 80-unit housing scheme in the north of England. He is professor of architecture at UIC, Chicago, and Unit Master at the Architectural Association, London. He is codirector of the Architectural Doppelgangers Research Cluster at the AA. He writes and edits Strangeharvest.com.