Raising a stink

Print edition : August 12, 2011

THE ENTRANCE OF News International's headquarters at Wapping in London, on July 17. - LUCY YOUNG/BLOOMBERG

The News of the World scandal in Britain shows that the closeness of large media magnates to those in power can amount to a direct threat to democracy.

OSCAR WILDE is famously said to have remarked: We all live in the gutter, but some of us gaze up at the stars. However, the ongoing saga of the activities of the famous gutter press in Britain especially those of News Corporation headed by the global media magnate Rupert Murdoch suggests that popular media find it much more profitable to keep gazing within and around the gutter, in the process using the most unsavoury methods.

The scandal around phone hacking (a term that Britain has only recently contributed to the English language, referring to the illegal interception of voice mail) has been simmering for years. But the public outcry really became strong when it was revealed in early July that the voice mail of an abducted schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered, had been hacked into by detectives working for News of the World, the popular tabloid that is part of the News Corporation stable. Since then, murky but fascinating revelations have come out of Britain with extraordinary rapidity and almost embarrassing profusion, providing all sorts of revelations about generally seedy, often unethical and occasionally criminal behaviour at the company's various media outlets.

The scandal has already caused many heads to roll in Britain two editors and the top Metropolitan police chief in London and an assistant commissioner have all resigned, and several people have been arrested. The continuously unravelling story has even threatened to singe the very top of the establishment, with Prime Minister David Cameron damaged by his close links with tainted editors and his lack of judgment in appointing one of them as his media adviser despite advice to the contrary. (The gentleman concerned resigned earlier this year and has since been arrested and released on bail.)

Quite apart from the intrinsic interest such a story generates, there are many points emerging from it that should hit the antennae of citizens across the world, in terms of the relationship between media and society.

The first point that emerges is just how gargantuan the Murdoch media empire is. In his deposition before a United Kingdom Parliamentary Committee, Rupert Murdoch emphasised this himself: how he headed a conglomerate with 53,000 employees spread over dozens of countries, such that the errant News of the World tabloid accounted for less than 1 per cent of his overall interests, which is why he was unaware of the goings-on in that paper. The media industry is one of the most concentrated globally, and concentration in this sector is growing apace. For example, in the United States alone, the author Ben H. Bagdikian ( The New Media Monopoly, Beacon Press, 2004) found that more than half of the radio and television stations, daily newspapers, magazines, publishers and movie studios in the U.S. were owned by just five companies. Since then, things have got even worse, with more mergers and acquisitions.

According to Free Press (https://www.freepress.net/ownership/chart/main), News Corporation is actually smaller in terms of turnover and profitability than its major rivals General Electric and Walt Disney. But in many ways its influence has been more significant because of the nature of its holdings and Murdoch's evident relish for controlling politics and policies. News Corporation's media holdings in the U.S. include Fox Broadcasting Company; television and cable networks such as Fox, Fox Business Channel, National Geographic and FX; the Dow Jones group, which includes The Wall Street Journal; other print publications such as New York Post and TV Guide; the magazines Barron's and SmartMoney; the book publisher HarperCollins; the film production companies 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Blue Sky Studios; numerous websites, including MarketWatch.com; and various other related businesses such News America Marketing, which is an obscure but profitable in-store and newspaper insert marketing business.

In the United Kingdom, News Corporation in its avatar as News International controls the major tabloid newspapers The Sun and the now defunct News of the World, as well as the more respectable The Sunday Times and The Times newspapers, in addition to cable and satellite TV businesses. The recent attempt to ensure complete takeover of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) television, in which the corporation holds minority shares, has been blocked by British Members of Parliament, in yet another fallout of the phone hacking scandal.

This kind of concentration necessarily has a symbiotic relationship with political power relying on it and also feeding it and sometimes even creating it. Murdoch, in particular, has savoured that relationship. He used his media clout to promote certain political parties and politicians, gave jobs and other incentives such as book deals to favoured individuals (as with Republicans working for Fox News in the U.S.) and famously claimed to determine election outcomes in the U.K.

In his statement in the U.K. Parliament, Cameron admitted as much, pointing out that that he was not the only one guilty of excessive intimacy with the media. He noted that all political parties had cosied up to media barons for years, seeking their electoral support it was just that this storm had broken under his watch.

The unfortunate element of truth in that statement points to the second big lesson for those in other countries to learn from this ongoing saga. The closeness of large media magnates to those in power is not just a matter for vague concern: it can amount to a direct threat to democracy, especially when those media are increasingly allowed to become concentrated. In fact, that very closeness enables greater concentration in this sector, as regulatory attempts are weakened. The BSkyB deal in the U.K. would definitely have gone through for Murdoch if the story of the phone hacking of Milly Dowler and of British soldiers killed in wars abroad had not created widespread public abhorrence and forced politicians to react.

Similarly, in the U.S., Murdoch-controlled media aggressively supported George Bush's war on Iraq throughout the past decade. This support was not only ideological: at that time Murdoch was seeking to secure ownership of the largest satellite television company in the U.S. while pressuring the Federal Communications Commission and the Congress to alter laws and regulatory standards in order to give his media conglomerate an unfair advantage. Specifically, the pressure was to allow the conglomerate to own newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same cities and to ease controls on the extent to which one corporation could dominate television viewership nationally. Murdoch was successful in getting the official and congressional clearances he sought though in fact matters were ultimately blocked by various court orders.

The third feature that emerges from this scandal, and one that is likely to be widespread in other countries as well, is the evidence that has come out about the close links large corporate media have developed not just with lawmakers and politicians but also with the police force. While two senior members of the London police force have resigned, many more have clearly been moving through the revolving door between police work and media consultancies. In turns out that 10 of 45 Scotland Yard press officers had worked for News International, and others went on to work for it after their police tenure.

No wonder, then, that police inquiries into phone hacking had until recently been a catalogue of failures as described by a parliamentary probe, which also found that deliberate attempts by News International to thwart the various investigations into the illicit hacking of voice mail were accompanied by the lack of real will in Scotland Yard to thwart those attempts and its own very poor review of evidence. This unwillingness of official investigating agencies to probe and uncover cases of criminality, especially by powerful players, will be familiar to many of us from experience in our own countries.

It is compounded by the ability of the big players to pay for suppression of the dissemination of information through monetary settlements. This is again something the Murdoch organisation has excelled at. In the U.S., in cases related to News America Marketing, the corporation allegedly paid out about $655 million to make embarrassing charges of corporate espionage and anti-competitive behaviour go away. In the case of the phone hacking scandal, The Guardian newspaper has noted that payouts to a victim in just one case amounted to nearly 1 million in 2009, and there were probably many more such settlements.

A related question, of course, is why these newspapers felt that it was necessary to engage in phone hacking in the first place. And this brings up the next critical point that is important to note: the change in the nature of what is seen as investigative journalism and the information and analysis that the public is able to access.

The Murdoch-controlled media, in all the countries they operate in, have been leaders of the pack in dumbing down news and encouraging the public to focus on petty sensationalist matters and the private lives of celebrities rather than on serious issues that actually affect the lives of ordinary people.

The print and TV media that they created became immensely popular partly for their focus on trivia and gossip, but they used that popularity, in turn, to reduce the space for meaningful and necessary journalism that generally justifies the freedom of the press. The news increasingly became an obsessed detailing of the personal activities of the famous, or lurid particulars of horrific cases of individual violence.

As a result, uncovering the real scams and scandals that are common and often essential to the functioning of contemporary capitalism (be they in finance, in arms trade, in the way economic policies are shaped to benefit corporations at the expense of citizens, or in how mining and extractive industries are allowed to deny the rights of local residents, and so on) has generally not been encouraged by media moguls who control the activities of journalists. More often than not, it is not just because such investigations would affect the powerful, who have a close nexus with the proprietors, but also because proprietors and editors themselves inhabit the heart of such darkness.

In fact, the danger may even be that an unfortunate result of the present scandal will be the opposite of what it should be: an exploitation of the current revulsion with the excesses of the media to place restrictions on the activities of genuine investigative journalism in the public interest. What is required is a shift in the orientation of the media, a move away from vacuous coverage of superstars and other media figures who become famous for being famous, towards greater emphasis on honest and determined exposure of the facts that allow citizens to arrive at an understanding of their own reality.

The current scandal has certainly generated schadenfreude that many commentators have expressed, at the humbling of a widely feared and extremely powerful corporation and the individual who created it, who has not been accustomed to playing by any rules but his own. But if it can also lead to the beginning of a shift in the orientation of the mass media towards more genuine public concerns, its benefits will extend well beyond this temporary glee.

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