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The Murdoch Papers

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If gossip is a sin, the News of the World was the most sinful of newspapers even before it was exposed in the current scandal.  The British Sunday tabloid made its living by revealing the secrets of the famous and the powerful to its four million readers, nonchalantly characterizing them as “scoops”.  After its own dirty secrets were revealed, the biggest selling English language newspaper was abruptly sacrificed by its News Corporation owners.  One minute the paper was operating as normal; the next it was printing its final edition.   

Expendable...

Journalists from the News of the World paid private investigators to illegally hack into the mobile telephones of murder victims, families of British servicemen and celebrities in order to obtain information that could not be acquired lawfully.  And it bribed police officers to illegally supply investigative material for exclusive stories.   

While most commentators have focused their attacks exclusively on Rupert Murdoch and his empire, history will draw two big lessons here.  First, the closure of the News of the World was the moment when print journalists officially became expendable.  Rupert Murdoch was prepared to close the News of the World because it scandalized his company at a time when he was bidding to purchase the sixty per cent of BSkyB that he didn’t already control.  Under UK law, consummation of this multi-billion investment hinged on the fitness of Mr. Murdoch’s company to be the owner. Ultimately, he withdrew the bid.  But the big money is in television.  Newspapers are a dying breed.  Official. 

Still, many in the journalistic profession continue to delude themselves about the value of their output, as if the quality of their prose was in some way related to their net worth.  Most print journalists work for loss-making or declining organizations (there are a few exceptions) and their employers subsidize production because of the political power and influence they can wield.  Unfortunately, many staff writers (yes, even the most talented ones) are little more than pawns in a far bigger power play. 

This leads to the second lesson.  Politicians cozy up to newspaper owners, editors and writers because a good public reputation makes them more electable.  But the way they do so largely escapes public view. This is now being challenged in the UK through the current Parliamentary hearings, and may lead to changes in attitudes in other countries. 

Newspapers cannot guarantee electoral success but the advantage that their support brings still makes them kingmakers.  Tony Blair was elected with the backing of News International’s daily tabloid The Sun.  In 2010, it switched allegiance to David Cameron’s Conservatives.  Newspapers can also make politicians unelectable.  In the United States, Senator George Allen of Virginia lost his Congressional seat, and saw his presidential ambitions destroyed, by the Washington Post. 

When he was recruited to be Cameron’s press adviser, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson had already been implicated in one phone hacking scandal.  Now he faces prosecution and a possible prison term for his part in the News of the World’s illegal news gathering methods.  Cameron also attended the wedding of Coulson’s predecessor, Rebekah Brooks, who may go the same way. 

In true Casablanca style, Prime Minister Cameron is shocked by what has been going on.   But as the resignations mount up – including those of Scotland Yard’s two most senior policemen – it now seems conceivable that the scandal could also cut short his term as UK leader. 

Legislators should now take steps to make their dealings with the media more transparent.  British Members of Parliament, for example, could expand the Register of Members Financial Interests to include details of all their interactions with news organizations.  More broadly, democracy is better served if close relationships within the ruling elite are better understood by the public.

9 Comments add one

  1. The Patriot says:

    I admire Mr. Murdock for his conservative values when it comes to the press. However, it does make one wonder is Fox News and the Wall Street Journal just another investment to build upon his wealth? Or is he a true conservative wishing to be the counter weight to liberal and communist encroachment in our media? It seems that the “News of the World” would suggest the premises wealth before ethics.

    ” I am shocked, shocked that their is gambling going on here”. Close down News of the World.

  2. Republi-chick says:

    So the news that politicians are in bed with the press and police can be bribed is nothing new. The idea that a journalist will break the law to get the “scoop” is also nothing of shock. What bothers me is that here in the US the media is using this as a way to say Fox News is shady and that the rest of them are not. We all know that other news media in the US and Canada will lie to it’s viewers to make the current administration look favorable. What I would like from Murdoch and others is some real reporting on REAL news. Not even our history books tell the real story.

  3. Actually, the legal issue at stake was around plurality. It was – in your language – the liberals who argued that the ‘fit and proper’ test should be elevated. That aside, I agree with the main point you’re making – if there’s nothing to hide then let them put all their nothings on the table. The bright lights of transparency are good for everybody for a thousand and one reasons.

    The really significant thing about this affair is not whether print is dead – it’s not. Print will always be important even though it may not be profit-making. Murdoch has been subsidising The Times for yonks and will continue to do so because of the branding benefits it brings. Ironically, it was the profitable bit of his print enterprise that got the chop. No, the significant thing about what’s happened recently is that the public has finally woken up to what’s going on. Until recently it was an ‘us and them’ situation with the targets of the media’s attacks being the ‘them’ brigade. They were deemed to be fair game and in fact the ‘great’ British public quite enjoyed reading about their exploits. Damn it, they even spent millions each week buying the bl**dy stuff. But what changed over the last few weeks was the realisation that it wasn’t just ‘them’ who were being attacked; it was ‘us’ to – with ‘us’ being the parents of poor Milly Dowler. For once there was absolutely no sense of schadenfreude. That’s the main thing. I just hope that folk can remember how they feel today and don’t backslide tomorrow…

    As an aside, it’s been interesting to note how silent Fox News has been on this topic. (You, like me, have probably seen that glorious YouTube video where , during an ad break, Fox panellists joke about whether any of them will dare to mention the unmentionable). Sky News, on the other hand, and even The Times have covered it in detail. Good on them. 

    Second aside: Such a shame that your first commentator seems to be advocating that Murdoch influence the editorial content of his papers. How very shortsighted and naive.

  4. Gavino says:

    Well, it’s interesting because these 3 comments all suggest that there are a host of angles that folks with different view points can agree on, as well as disagree on. The Patriot raises the question whether conservatives should admire Rupert Murdoch’s capitalism or conservatism – an interesting juxtaposition; Republi-chick makes the point that liberals have used the NoW issue to beat up fair and balanced Fox News; and Tom (Labour-man) is agreeing on the need for greater transparency. All great points. Great insight too on “us and them” – the NoW breached the trust that people put in it. But in my view it is not just NoW – print journalism as a whole (left and right) has gone downhill, with sub-editing now contracted out and very few checks on what is put in print. They have become budget airlines to survive and my forecast is that very few will make it through the next decade. In which case, how will our kids (or our kids’ kids) think of newspapers…? Will they understand how important, and how corrupting, they were for our time in history?

  5. Republi-chick says:

    Our kids’ kids will only see a newspaper in a museum it is going the way of the dinosaurs. People rely more and more on blogs/websites for news because there seems to be less hidden agenda.

  6. The funny thing was that the NotW was highly profitable. I believe it could and should of survived (200 workers lost their jobs and millions of readers lost their preferred Sunday read etc.). It was, after all, the tabloid of the mass working class, the one that first appealed to the newly literate in the 19th century. I endorse your point on transparency. I add that the time has come not just for more transparency, but for more formality. Politicians and police need to keep their distance from the media and to stop seeking populist short-cuts. As to Fox News, its openly declared bias makes it all the more determined to be fair in its reporting – that contrasts to how the BBC behaves, given that its bias is not declared at all (call it translucent at best, opaque at worst).

  7. Gavino says:

    We don’t have the figures, but I think we will find that the once highly-profitable NoW was much less so when it was abandoned, and certainly on a path of decline. Like other papers, it had been pared down to a much smaller number of employees and straight economics tells us that profitable enterprises hire and grow rather than contract. That said, Rupert Murdoch was still prepared to deprive himself of the NoW revenues, whatever they were.

    I think the BBC situation is even worse than you indicate. Not only do they not declare their obvious liberal bias but the government lets them hide behind laws which are supposed to ensure they (and others) are not biased. It is institutionalised bias. Much better to privatise the BBC and get rid of the state censorship vehicle altogether, as in the USA. Great comment. Republi-chick, you crack me up…! Newspapers in museums – you are probably right. Makes me feel old.

  8. Just returned from a vacation and so have only now seen the response to my comment. I’m intrigued to know why you felt obliged to add ‘Labour-man’ to your after my name? Yes, I am – and not embarrassed at all! – but I don’t get the point of saying it unless you’re insinuating that Labour Party members are opposed to transparency? It was the Labour Government, after all, that introduced the Freedom of Information Act amongst many other measures to open up access to official information. There’s more to do, no doubt, but I don’t believe transparency is a party political issue. 

  9. Gavino says:

    Tom, no the point was to highlight that there are consistent viewpoints across different political philosophies. As you say, Labour introduced FOIA and the left in the UK was traditionally more in favor of FOI than were Conservatives (with a big “C”). Conservatives with a small “c” also favor transparency because it establishes greater accountability from those that govern – a shared principle. I know you are proud to be Labour and therefore identified you as such to make this point to the others who don’t know you. I hope you had a great vacation!

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