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WorldVoices: Notes on a Scandal

[Editor’s Note: WorldVoices—a recurring feature of the WorldPolicy blog—links to opinion and analysis of current events from English-language news sources around the globe.]

By Samantha Chu

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his son James testified in front of Parliament on Tuesday, deflecting blame for a scandal that could change the landscape of British journalism. Fortunes have changed for Murdoch, the Chairman and CEO of News Corporation, whose subsidiary News International published the late and now infamous News of the World. While the paper had previously faced allegations of hacking the voicemail of British celebrities and politicians, the tipping point for mass outrage came with the revelation that News of the World had broken into the phone of a murdered girl named Milly Dowler.

Subject to intense public criticism, News of the World was shuttered on July 10, after 168 years of publication—but scandal continues to wrack Britain’s media and political establishments. Observers and politicians have scrutinized Prime Minister David Cameron’s connections with Murdoch and News Corp. Although it was Cameron who announced an inquiry into News of the World’s dubious practices, he also hired Andy Coulson, who had left his old post as a News of the World editor after previous phone hacking accusations.

As public anger mounts, more and more prominent figures have fallen from grace. Coulson resigned his post with the Conservative Party’s communications team and was arrested on July 8. Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, was pictured on the front pages of newspapers around the world with her arrest on July 17. Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson of the Metropolitan Police resigned under a volley of criticism for not reopening the initial investigation into the phone hacking case, followed swiftly by assistant commissioner John Yates.

All eyes were on Murdoch when he appeared at Parliament, with the proceedings streamed live on various news channels and online outlets. The magnate, though admitting to being “humbled,” denied knowing any specifics on News of the World’s activities, pointing out that the newspaper consisted of less than one percent of his company. But the show-stealer of the hearing was Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, who came to her husband’s defense with a quick punch at the comedian/protestor Jonathan May-Bowles when he attempted to shove a shaving-cream pie into Murdoch’s face.

Caroline Davies at The Guardian hailed Wendi Deng’s defense as a “Charlie’s Angel moment” and a boost to Murdoch’s image:

Deng lunged [at May-Bowles] while startled police officers were barely off the back foot. While a roomful of male advisers also appeared stunned, she scooped up the paper plate fired at her husband and launched it like a grenade back at May-Bowles, a comedian, with an amazing right hook…

Witnesses believed that if it wasn't for that officer she would have continued round the table to finish the man off.

She capped this performance by proceeding to sit on the table in front of her husband, calmly wiping his foam-flecked face.

That she reportedly laughed "I got him", relishing the moment she swung a right hook at the comedian, indicates Deng is no shrinking violet – more Crouching Tiger, according to members of her instant global fan club.

Calling May-Bowles’ pie-throwing attempt “the dumbest protest in history,” Stephen Brook at The Australian sidestepped the flurry of media attention over Wendi Deng to sum up the results of the hearing in his column:

So what did we learn?

News International was vulnerable after admitting paying the legal fees of News of the World investigator Glenn Mulcaire after he was jailed.

More needs to be explained about which News International executives knew about a cache of incriminating emails stored at law firm Harbottle & Lewis.

Murdoch feels let down by people he trusted to run parts of his empire.

News Corporation is emphatic in its belief that phone hacking and paying policemen is wrong…

Murdoch mounted a strong defence of journalism: "Investigative journalism leads to a more open and transparent society and we are a better society because of it"…

He had not considered resigning, was not responsible for the phone hacking scandal and believes he was the best person to clean it up.

Despite the intense questioning, some of the MPs made plain they admired Murdoch's decision to stay on after the attack, with one referring to his "immense guts".

And as another put it, referring to what everyone will remember from the hearing: "Your wife has a very good left hook."

Though Wendi Deng’s performance was greeted with adulation by Chinese bloggers, Xinhua, the government news agency of the People’s Republic of China, decided to take the opportunity to publish a scathing commentary on the methods of the “Western Media”:

In recent years, traditional media has been faced with mounting pressure from both the same industry and new media.

To survive the fierce dogfight and retain lucrative market share, they have to engage in illegal practices, such as hacking into individuals' mobile phones or email accounts at the cost of violating people's privacy…

Privacy is the most basic right in all human rights, and it is a right about dignity, said Chen Xun, a professor in the School of Journalism, Renmin University of China.

However, he said, some Western media violate privacy by using the "right to know" excuse, and changing the concept.

Under the cover of "media freedom," they wantonly challenge the privacy of the public, which is the direct example of the human rights violation, he added.

The sole purpose of the Murdock's [sic] News Corp. is to make a profit, he continued to reveal, it put aside its social responsibility to increase its circulation and attract advertisements.

It has unveiled that the Western media has gone very far away on the path of upholding human rights, he concluded.

At the Hindustan Times, Dipankar De Sarkar asks why observers are so quick to demonize Murdoch:

Hacking into someone’s voicemail is illegal and therefore unethical – plain and simple. You hack into someone’s phone, you break the law, and you ought to be punished. There are no two ways about it…

But hacking is not something that began with Rupert Murdoch. We don’t even know that he personally encouraged it in any manner. It wasn’t Rupert or James Murdoch who dreamed up the notion of entering into a relationship between the press and politicians. And they weren’t the only ones in town with such ties.

The legal aspects of corruption and telephone-hacking aside (which are rightly being probed by police and are the subject of an independent inquiry), there’s something strange about this sudden moralistic attack on Murdoch and I think I know what it is: it’s being launched by the very political parties and politicians, who, as long as it worked for them, were more than happy to cuddle up.

Mary Riddell writes in a column at The Telegraph many of the politicians and public figures who are attempting to “muzzle” Murdoch are, in fact, complicit themselves in cozying up to the media:

Once again, Ed Miliband [Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition] leads the way. In a speech yesterday, he continued to cast himself as Mark Antony, standing over Caesar’s corpse to invoke the backing of the common man. His plea is that assorted power blocs be broken up…

But while Mr Miliband is correct to highlight expenses crooks, there is little mention in his thesis of the creeping virus, endemic in Labour as in Conservative circles, of complicity with the powerful. Today, Rupert Murdoch faces a tyrant’s show trial. Any day now, he and his creatures may again be serving cocktails to their political lackeys.

At The National, Frank Kane backs this view that Murdoch has lost touch in the digital age of news, and is a “colossus who has definitely lost the Midas touch”:

It would be foolish to write him off, especially outside the UK, but there has been a quantum change in his standing in the global English language press. He is reduced, maybe not terminally, but permanently.

In fact, the signs have been there for a while of the slow degradation of management talent at News Corp, the family-controlled master company for his global media empire.

Murdoch Sr never really got to grips with the age of the internet. He dithered over a web strategy for years, then produced a mediocre website for his UK print titles, and improved it only when he decided he had to charge for it, a move that has not been successful.

Signs of management failure are there for all to see: the purchase of MySpace for US$580 million (Dh2.13 billion) in 2005, sold last month for $35m; the decision to buy his daughter Elisabeth's TV production company for a staggering $615m, opening him up to renewed charges of nepotism; the $2.8bn write-off on The Wall Street Journal, a vanity purchase if ever there was one.

A columnist at Gulf News attempts to shift the focus from News Corp.’s future to the future landscape of the British press:

For the moment a disintegration of News Corp seems unlikely. The firm faces more accusations and legal challenges in Australia and America, and if any of its directors were to be found guilty of a criminal charge, that would present huge regulatory problems. Yet that could take years.

There is a much greater public interest in having the British press regulated in a fair way. Newspapers currently answer to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a self-regulatory body set up by the industry in 1991. The PCC is meant to enforce a code of conduct of its own devising, and deal with grievances brought to its attention; but its attempts to hold the tabloids to account have been pathetic. Many critics unsurprisingly now want Britain to move to statutory control. That would be a mistake. In the short term papers are bound to be better behaved — not least because they will see lawbreakers go to prison. And there is also a principle at stake: the media in a democracy must not be licensed by the state, especially one as centralised as Britain's. The press may have misbehaved badly; but it is the press, notably the Guardian, that has brought the behaviour at News International to light. Instead of the PCC, a new press body should be set up free from financial dependence on the industry, with a tougher code of conduct, powers to investigate compliance with it and others to penalise lapses from it. Ideally that would be coupled with reform of Britain's libel laws.

Lawbreaking companies and marauding journalists are a fact of life: they should be punished. But…the real abuse of power — and the real threat to democracy — comes when commercial interest becomes intertwined with the state.

****
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Samantha Chu is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user piper caldwell]

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