News without Ethics: Media the Murdoch Way

Fish rot from the head down. So do unethical businesses and corrupt societies. This is as true when the fish is an unethical business as one of the arm of liberal democratic government – executive, judicial or legislative. It is also true of the fourth estate or free press, the often forgotten power-centre that is the key to a functioning democracy.

Revelations that Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The News of the World was bribing police and listening to, and ever interfering with, the phone messages of average British citizens struck by tragedy – including the parents of murdered schoolgirls and relatives of those killed in the London underground bombings – has sparked a revolt by UK citizens and consumers of News media around the world.

After nearly six years of senior News executives claiming that the scandal was contained to the tabloid and a few rogue hirelings, the paper has been shut down from this week. Around 160 jobs have been lost, though Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International and editor of the News of the World when phones were being hacked, has managed to keep her post and boss Rupert Murdoch’s favour.

Not surprisingly, the decision to close the paper has barely muted the bays for blood, especially in light of new reports this morning showing a more than ten-year assault on the privacy of Gordon Brown by News International & others agencies, including invasion of the former PM’s legal, tax, bank, phone and even his child’s medical records. Those in the know have seen the shut-down as a bid to protect The Precious, rather than proof that News has finally decided to accept responsibility for what’s gone wrong. The Precious is Murdoch’s ambition to assume full control of the highly profitable pay-TV operator BSkyB. The take-over was once-considered a fait accompli but is now at risk over concerns that News Corp directors – including James Murdoch who has been accused of misleading parliament about the scandal and authorizing payoffs to silence victims – may not be “fit and proper” people to hold the broadcasting licence. While the communications regulator Ofcom had already been expressing doubts, the government has now referred the entire matter to the Competition Commission.

None of this has escaped the public or the non-News International press, which have largely focused on Murdoch’s refusal to sack Rebekah Brooks as evidence that News remains clueless about how to begin healing the suppurating ethical sores on the body of its media business. The claim is that unless Brooks goes, we can never be confident of knowing the full extent of News hacking crimes and misdemeanours. Nor can we be confident that those who run the business truly “get” why their behaviour was so wrong, and why the public deserve meaningful guarantees it will never happen again.

I agree that Brooks deserves to lose her job, and must do so if the company is ever to put the scandal behind it. Because while the News International Chief Executive has said that it is “inconceivable that [she] knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations,” what is truly inconceivable is that she could be – or be seen to be – an appropriate person to sit on top of internal investigations and cooperate with external ones. To paraphrase one Tweeter on the issue, how can Brooks get to the bottom of the scandal when she was at the top of it? In other words, Brooks has a conflict of interest. Only a media organisation entirely free of her, and therefore with no reason to hide any discoveries implicating her, will have any chance of being believed on the findings of the company’s own probe of the matter, and on any claims that henceforth – unlike the past – News is fully cooperating with police and parliamentary inquiries.

But to really set things right, we’ll need more than Brooks' head on a pike. The abuse of media power that lies at the heart of the phone hacking scandal can be seen in News Corp media in other parts of the world, including Murdoch’s Australian tabloids and the national broadsheet, The Australian. Indeed, part of the horror generated by the News of the World scandal is its exposure of how unchecked media power can corrupt the foundational institutions – and so the very workings – of democracy. Confessions in recent days suggest that Scotland Yard may have aided James Murdoch’s desire to “box” – or contain – the damage by deciding not to further investigate the scandal, perhaps because of fear of exposing corrupt cops or wearing the excoriating heat of unfavourable News Corp editorials. British politicians are now confessing they have been similarly cowed, “None of the leading politicians wanted to touch [the scandal] because of the power of Murdoch and the fear that they had,” said one MP.

The inordinate power of the Murdoch press, and fear of landing on the wrong side of it, has a decisive influence on the Australian political landscape, too. I am personally aware of a successful opposition campaign to win state government focused almost exclusively on promulgating policies the Murdoch tabloid was seen to support. As The Age argued yesterday, News Ltd’s Australian papers have “largely abandoned” valuing or attempts to achieve “journalistic impartiality”, embarking instead on a “series of vendettas against its designated foes”. Such enemies included Victoria’s former police commissioner, Simon Overland, after he suggested the paper had irresponsibly published details of anti-terror raids before they occurred.

Now that the tide has turned in the UK, those silenced by fear have rounded on the News bully, crying mea culpa for having lacked the balls to have resisted pressure to sell the public out. UK Assistant Police Commissioner John Yates now says his hasty 2009 decision not to reopen an investigation into News International was “a pretty crap one” and that while he usually “put the victim first”, when it came to News he didn’t “follow my principle and that is my greatest regret”.

British MP Zac Goldsmith is also beating his breast. He charges News with ‘'systemic abuse of almost unprecedented power", saying the organisation “has grown too powerful and has abused that power. It has systematically corrupted the police and, in my view, has gelded this Parliament, to our shame”.’ Such personal and systemic failures, the Prime Minister David Cameron admits, has shaken the trust of British citizens in the foundational institutions of their democracy. “For people watching this scandal unfold, there is something very disturbing about what they see,” said Cameron. “Just think of who they put their trust in: the police to protect them, the politicians to represent them and the press to inform them. And all of them have been let down.”

Such admissions of failure and public self-flagellation are necessary, but they will not be sufficient to ensure British democracy recovers from the News of the World scandal. To emerge stronger, British leaders must restore the integrity of democratic institutions and the trust of citizens in them. Achieving this will be the work of numerous British Parliamentary enquiries that, as part of their brief, will need to seriously consider additional regulation of the power of the press. If our Australian leaders are smart – and that’s a rhetorical phrasing, you don’t need you to answer it – they’d jump at the chance to implement a similar inquiry into abuses of media power here.

This seems particularly true in light of evidence – offered this weekend by Fairfax wanker – Rupert Murdoch’s term – and former Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie. Guthrie claims there are no ethical framework guiding the way News produces its content because Rupert Murdoch is hostile to it. Respected media commentator Margaret Simons agrees, extending this observation beyond News Ltd newsrooms. Even where such codes exist, says Simons, they are rarely attended to and impossible to enforce. “Those of us who have worked in media organisations know that it is rare for ethical codes to be referred to or taken seriously, if they stand in the way of getting the story. It is also almost impossible, particularly in this country, to enforce the codes.”

Any inquiry into media regulation is risky, I acknowledge this. It risks the power of the media being curtailed not to defend the private rights of citizens or the public interest, but to stop journalists shining light into the dark corners that politicians – those who do the regulating – would prefer remained ill-lit. But to say that appropriate and balanced regulation would be impossible to achieve, or more outlandishly that the media – unlike all other power-centres in a democracy – needs no checks or balances on its influence, is self-interested rubbish.

We stand at a unique point in history, where what once seemed impossible – the placing of checks on media practices that abuse power and corrupt our democratic institutions – now does not. British leaders in law enforcement and parliament have been forced into action by the News of the World scandal. Australian leaders should not wait until our own citizens find themselves victims of similar media abuses of power before they launch similar action.

This piece was quoted on the BBC News website.

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