13 July 2011

And, in July of the Year of Our Lord 2011, Rupert Murdoch suddenly withdrew his bid for BSkyB

… and there was much rejoicing.

I’ve refrained from comment on the News of the World mobile-hacking scandal over the past week or so, largely because I wasn’t quite sure what I had to add, other than ‘why should we be surprised over this?’ Though it is true that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, the difficulty was that the press has wielded massive power – the distorting power of advertising – over those who could hold them accountable: to wit, the public. Is it really any wonder that, in the rush to be ‘the last to get the message, but the first ones on the scene’ (as American folk musician John McCutcheon aptly put it), they would put aside any considerations of respect, of dignity, of privacy of the people on whom they were reporting, even if said people were murder victims or members of the armed forces? Add to that the entire self-enclosed and self-enforcing culture of victimhood which pervades at the opinion outlets of News Corporation, and you have a perfect recipe for the corporate equivalent of sociopathy. (Indeed, the response from News Corporation was predictable: instead of expressing contrition and rooting out those responsible for the phone tap all the way up the hierarchy, there was the mandatory boilerplate apology. When Rebekah Brooks [former editor of News of the World] was called to task having been in charge during this breach of ethics, Murdoch leapt to her defence, blaming it on a vendetta by her ‘political enemies’.)

I don’t mean all this as self-righteously and sanctimoniously as it is no doubt beginning to sound, so let me try again. A free press is generally a good thing to have, particularly when people of limited means can have access to it. I am happy to have a space to type out my thoughts where people can read and comment on them. But the free press is not a panacea for the problems of a democratic society – and, indeed, can become a problem (as we have seen). If one gives too many powers to too few people, they are naturally subjected to far many more temptations, more opportunities for abuse and a greater sense of entitlement. This is true even if these people have the very best of causes and motivations, as I imagine some of the people working at WikiLeaks had. Transparency is good, but not when lives are ruined or put at deadly risk.

In short, to bring this a little closer to home, I think what we can hope for at this point is a set of checks and balances on the fourth estate: a fairness doctrine, a journalistic ethics commission and advertising regulations strike me as the most commonsensical places to start. Hopefully, we won’t wait for another murder victim’s mobile to be tampered with before these reforms come about.


  1. Both the current and former governments in the UK were compromised by their association with the Murdoch press. This extended to the Metropolitan Police. Giving those bodies more powers without giving them a motivation to use them seems like a good way to stifle dissent. The chief investigator in this case was the Guardian--another newspaper. In my nightmare scenario, Murdoch, Maxwell, or some other archetype British media tycoon leans on the government of the day to squelch a meddlesome rival. A heavily regulated free press is a contradiction in terms.

  2. If such is the case, then it follows logically that a.) we haven’t had a free press since the 1940’s and b.) Britain has not had a free press at all since the BBC was formed (though Britain is an odd case in that broadcast media are heavily regulated and print media are barely regulated at all, with the most government intrusion being an indirect channel through the Office of Fair Trading; it is noteworthy that tabloids, rather than television newsrooms, were the ones behaving badly in this case). Naturally, I find such a view (that a heavily regulated free press is a contradiction in terms) massively ahistorical, particularly in light of the fact that, on these shores, press freedoms for the individual are far more greatly constricted by the monopoly power of large multinational conglomerates like the Big Six and Clear Channel than they are by the FCC, which has adopted an increasingly ‘hands-off’ approach since the 1980’s.

    Actually, I would argue that the days in which the FCC was most active were the days in which local broadcast media had the greatest influence and autonomy, and the days during which we could expect better reporting and journalism from broadcast media. Any one broadcaster could reach a maximum of 35% of the national market, and could not own more than one television station in a market with fewer than seven stations. Radio, TV and newspaper control were kept separate, ensuring competition of ideas even at the local level. Advertising time and content were both monitored. (In 1962, there were 9 minutes of advertising per hour of television; by 1993 the average was 16 minutes of advertising per hour and by 2004 the average was around 20 minutes.) Investigative journalism was still there to keep government accountable, but the press was not so powerful as to actually bully the government into lowering standards and turning the other way as it proceeded to bully and spy on the public.

    With regard to a solution, it seems like you’re only looking at one end of the Gordian knot of this problem. Yes, the Murdoch Empire, spearheaded by its tabloid outlets, wielded a massive and disproportionate amount of influence over the government. Yes, it was a fellow member of the press (now dead under suspicious circumstances) who brought the story to light, though he was depending on government and public notice. However, now that the News Corporation brand is discredited amongst the British public, the government has a rare opportunity to, as it were, shake off its yoke whilst retaining the moral high ground. If reforms were instituted that could help keep the press accountable, and scale it down to a more manageable level at which the exchange of ideas rather than rent-seeking access to the private lives of the powerful is normative, that would be ideal.

  3. This is a lot to digest, and I think your historical analysis wrong-headed and ignores too many factors which influence both (a) how news is created and (b) how news is consumed. The growth of advertising reflects, among other things, a diversified marketplace. Ask William Shirer about the halcyon days of a single advertiser underwriting a program.

    I really do think you've got things the wrong way round when you talk of the government keeping the press accountable. It's meant to work the other way. The most serious abuses here, which involved the hacking of phones, are not a press-specific problem. It might point to a broader problem of corporate governance and responsibility, but it's unclear whether that really is a broad problem within "Fleet Street" or Murdoch-specific.

    As for the dead man, I wonder why you mention him. The police are thus far calling his death "unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious." The most important actor in getting this information out was the Guardian, with its own ax to grind.

    I think it's fair to argue, also, about whether the UK really does have a free press as an American understands the term. If it does, the reforms you're proposing would stick that genie safely back in the bottle.

  4. Really? Is ‘press freedom’ truly so fragile a thing that something as inoffensive as an ethics commission, a fairness doctrine or an anti-trust law can kill it? Aren’t these institutions supposed to be stronger than the ones they replaced? After all, it’s not like I’m going completely Fürst Metternich on News Corp and advocating outright censorship.

    Honestly, I don’t think you’re reading my argument charitably at all. I do certainly acknowledge the potential for systematic governmental abuse of power in the absence of an independent press (indeed, I mentioned it explicitly in my response to your first comment), but given that that is not what happened here, I do not see the value in harping on the point. And my historical analysis was limited largely to the regulations that existed on news organisations and the effect such a regulatory environment had on competition – it didn’t really pretend to be anything more, so I find myself rather confused by your throwaway comment to the effect that it was supposed to. (Also, the evidence points directly AGAINST there being a diversified market, when six large corporations control practically all television news broadcasting.) My point was merely that, with the deregulation of advertising and the consolidation of power in the hands of a few large corporations, the quality of reporting has decreased and the big news outlets basically gained rentier status. To use one example, when Rolling Stone did not follow this trend and published a story that led to the firing of General McChrystal, the reporter was castigated by the International Herald Tribune and by CBS for violating a gentleman’s agreement that the press do not speak ill of high public officials without their knowing about it.


    To be perfectly blunt, is the kind of bootlicking IHT and CBS had come to expect really the kind of free press you want to see?

    Maybe it’s the localist in me talking, but I get the feeling that with more names in the press room and market share divided up amongst more (and more local) actors under a set of common rules and standards for fair play, the quality of reporting would increase and the actors involved wouldn’t have the means or the reason to go around tapping people’s phones.