I’ve been watching with profound fascination the still unfolding story regarding the phone-hacking scandal that’s befallen part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in the UK. I’m assuming you are aware of this scandal, but if not, let me give you a quick rundown.
Nine years ago, someone working at Murdoch’s UK tabloid, the News of the World, had allegedly hacked into the cell phone of a murdered girl. In addition to listening to her voice messages, they also erased them and thus gave the girl’s family and the police false hope that she was still alive. Reprehensible? Yes. A singular case? Not in the least.
Many more alleged phone-hacking instances have since been brought to light, including: victims of the London 7/7 terrorist bombings in 2005; families of deceased British soldiers; numerous celebrities and politicians; and even members of the Royal Family. Police bribery has also been alleged, which may have been widespread.
To try and stem the tide and protect the rest of his media empire, Rupert Murdoch shut down the News of the World (the UK’s largest selling newspaper) after 168 years of existence.
Then the arrests and resignations began.
High profile arrests include a former editor of the paper who at one time had also been Prime Minister David Cameron’s Director of Communications; the CEO of News International (a subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp.), a former executive editor at the paper, and other individuals alleged to have been participating in the illicit activity.
Resignations have included two of Britain’s most senior police officers and assorted other News International executives.
Cameron had to cut short a trip to South Africa to attend a special sitting of Parliament to not only lay out the measures the government plans to introduce to deal with the scandal, but to also answer questions regarding his judgment in hiring a former News of the World editor that had been forced to resign over a previous phone-hacking scandal.
The affair has now crossed the Atlantic. News Corp. is an American-based company, and therefore subject to US law. The FBI has launched an investigation into whether the company’s actions in the UK violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. They are also looking into allegations of hacking into voice messages from 9/11 victims. The US Department of Justice has opened its own investigation.
The back story to this is the powerful force Rupert Murdoch has been in British politics for decades. He has been able to exert tremendous control over the political agenda through his media holdings and can rightly be said to have played kingmaker. It’s even been tossed around that British politicians have lived in fear of the man, so if you sense they see their opportunity to throw off the yoke, you would be correct.
Murdoch has not held as much direct sway over American politics, but there is little doubt he has played a significant role in shaping American politics through his Fox News Channel and its president, Roger Ailes. Mr. Ailes was a media consultant for Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr. I think it’s safe to say he’s a Republican. Fox News has pushed a staunchly conservative agenda since its creation and this, along with the Rush Limbaughs of the world, are largely responsible for the deepening divisiveness we’ve witnessed in American politics. Personally, I’m okay with news entities or talk radio hosts presenting stories and topics from either a right or left standpoint, but Fox News and certainly Limbaugh play fast and loose with the facts as a matter of course and it’s that which does cause me concern. By calling themselves “Fair and Balanced”, Fox elevated cynicism to the level of art form. Regardless, though, whether you love or hate them, you have to at least acknowledge Murdoch’s, Ailes’, and Limbaugh’s abilities and success.
Please don’t think Canada is immune to media bias. We have both right and left leaning papers in this country – that’s a defining factor in print media. The CBC has always been viewed as being a liberal institution. Talk radio wouldn’t exist if hosts didn’t take a particular side on an issue – where’s the fun in arguing with someone who always sees your point? Sun TV (or Fox News North as it has been dubbed by naysayers) is now here. Sure, it’s been met with a collective ‘meh’, but these are early days. Give it some time and let’s see what becomes of it. But Canadian media, in general, is far more restrained than its UK or US counterparts. Laws have been broken here at times, too, and facts have been misrepresented, but there is nothing approaching the vulture-culture that exists in the Fleet Street tabloids.
This brings us to the question of the media’s role in a democratic society. At what point do we cross the line from observing/commenting to exerting/manipulating? This is a timely given that the CRTC is currently struggling with the question of vertical integration in our domestic, private media. Is it proper for a company to control both the programming and distribution of media? Or, put more simply, how big should we allow such companies to become? This isn’t even taking into consideration the new media question that governments globally are wrestling with.
The media is not tasked with controlling the agenda – plain and simple. To do so goes against the intended role of a free media (free ‘press’ is an antiquated term). In a democracy, the media is vital in maintaining as much transparency in government and society as a whole as possible. It is a watchdog. Increasingly, though, some media has morphed from that traditional function into an area that is far less objective and in extreme cases simple entertainment under the guise of news. Again, this is much less prevalent in Canada, but the public’s attention span in today’s ‘twitterverse’ is causing all media, everywhere, to adapt to a news cycle that is fluid well beyond the imaging of even a couple decades ago.
As such, we find ourselves being treated to “breaking” news stories that lack the proper fact-checking that once was a modus operandi, but increasingly is becoming luxury. This is an unfortunate, but natural competitive result in the new media environment, which can be largely forgiven. Provided they can eventually correct this problem, of course. What can’t be forgiven is the deliberate misrepresentation of facts. Hopefully, that type of journalism will be curtailed as a result of this present scandal.
So, go ahead and let your compelling news reader do their commentary. It’s great radio. Go ahead and read the Ed/Op-Ed pages. They are often the most interesting part of the paper. Just don’t lose touch with the basic ethics and important social responsibility you have to keep people properly and honestly informed.