No more ‘News of the World’: Problem Solved?
Someone ought to take responsibility. That seems to be the prevailing sentiment in Britain now, as yet another scandal (or yet another wave in a continuing scandal) breaks over unethical journalistic practices at the various outlets of Rupert Murdoch’s company News Corp.
The phone-tapping scandal has been going on for some time now in the UK, after it was revealed that reporters for News Corp. tabloids the News of the World and the Sun had hacked into the voice mail of celebrities (actress Sienna Miller; actor Hugh Grant; aides to and members of the royal family) to gather “news.” But a new and even uglier face of the story broke this week, with allegations that News of the World reporters had listened to, and tampered with, the voice mail of a murdered British schoolgirl back in 2002, before her body was found. Not only did the paper’s reporters listen to messages from the missing girl’s frantic family; when her mailbox filled up, they deleted old messages to make room for new ones. This in turn gave the family false hope that the girl might still be alive, and it potentially hampered a police investigation.
In the last few days, more allegations of wrongdoing have sprung up. More people victimized by the paper: families of soldiers killed in active duty; victims of the 7/7 terror attacks. Police officers paid for information. And on and on. The Guardian, which broke the story, has a page devoted to the latest news. These new revelations provoke outrage in a way that the hacking of celebrities’ phones does not, although I think the latter violation ought to be disturbing enough. Tabloid readers may assume that the personal life of Sienna Miller, or Prince Harry, somehow qualifies as “news,” and that those people are therefore not entitled to the privacy the rest of us take for granted. But they’re wrong. Now, however, it’s easy for readers to see the immorality of violating someone’s privacy for juicy headlines. In a sense, of course, the News of the World was always taking advantage of the victims whose grief it sensationalized. But this is an impossible-to-ignore example of the paper taking direct advantage of the people it claimed to champion—victims of “paedophilia,” soldiers in uniform, and so on. And the excuse Murdoch and News Corp. have been hiding behind all along—the claim that any wrongdoing was the responsibility of a few bad apples, acting without the knowledge of top editors—is no longer working. “I hope that you all realize it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations,” Rebekah Brooks—the editor of News of the World at the time of the Milly Dowler case—wrote to her staff (the grammar’s a mess, but you get the idea). Really, it’s much harder to conceive that she didn’t know what was going on: don’t editors usually express curiosity about where reporters are getting their scoops? So, today, News Corp. announced that it is shutting down News of the World come Sunday.
Does this count as someone taking responsibility? Or is it an attempt to prevent News Corp.’s executives from actually being held accountable? Media Matters – long on News Corp.’s tail, especially when it comes to the errors of its American enterprise Fox News – thinks this is Murdoch’s Watergate. “Like Nixon’s crooked White House,” Eric Boehlert wrote, “the phone-hacking scandal perfectly captures a larger News Corp. culture at play and that it, therefore, cannot be dismissed as some sort of anomaly. These weren’t just rogue elements at work within the Murdoch media empire. Instead these were elements that reflected a dark Murdoch ethos, where serial mendacity isn’t just embraced, but often celebrated.”
At Salon, Alex Pareene connected the misdeeds of the News of the World with some of the recent ethical lapses of our local, comparatively tame Murdoch tabloid, the New York Post. The same day the story about the Milly Dowler voice-mail-hack hit the papers, the NY Post was hit with a libel suit for having claimed, apparently baselessly, that the hotel chambermaid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault was a prostitute. In fact, they called her a “hooker,” and as Pareene notes, they did so
In huge, screaming, million-point text, on the front page last Saturday. The paper also repeatedly called the maid a “prostitute” and even accused her of “turning tricks on the taxpayer’s dime,” claiming she continued to act as a hotel prostitute while under the supervision of the District Attorney’s office. While other newspapers have reported on the woman’s “credibility” problems, not one has so definitively and matter-of-factly accused her of being a “hooker,” let alone one whose union assigned her to the Sofitel in order to maximize their prostitution revenue.
The Post’s reporting on this story has been sensationalistic and irresponsible from the beginning — it was the Post that reported on its front page that DSK’s accuser (maybe) had HIV. (News value? None. Sensationalism value? Through the roof.) And for the record, they are not chastised. Today, an internal headline refers to DSK (still officially facing charges of sexual assault) as a “frisky Frenchman,” and a series of photos of him struggling with the key to his front door were accompanied by a headline calling him “Romeo” — right — and snickering that he had been “‘lock’-blocked.” (If you don’t recognize the “joke” there, you’re too classy to read the Post.) Going back a little further, this is the same paper that claimed — wrongly, as it turned out! — that the problems cleaning up after the December 26 snowstorm in New York could be blamed on heartless sanitation workers — union thugs — who intentionally botched the job to send a message to City Hall. Haven’t seen an apology there either. “In other words,” Pareene says, “the practices of News of the World are an outlier, but not an anomaly, for News Corp.”
Will Rupert Murdoch finally be held accountable for some of the unethical practices he has condoned? Will other News Corp. executives and projects be hurt by the latest scandal? We can hope, but if so, it won’t be because of a sudden corporate commitment to decency. I see that advertisers, most notably Ford, reacted to the revelations of wrongdoing at News of the World by pulling their financial support from the paper. That’s good. But what I really want to know is, when do consumers start to take some responsibility? What will motivate people to make the connection between paying for sleaze and condoning it? James Murdoch (who issued the statement about closing the paper down) can make reference to News of the World’s “proud history of fighting crime, exposing wrong-doing and regularly setting the news agenda for the nation.” But we are still talking about a paper that features photos of topless women on page 3 — a practice pioneered by Murdoch in the Sun. (Think of the Beatles lyric “She’s the kind of the girl who makes the News of the World / Yes, you could say she was attractively built” — I finally understood what that meant when I studied abroad in London.) No one could open a copy of the paper and not understand what sort of standards prevailed in its “good newsroom.” The same goes for the New York Post, with its gleefully prurient, openly sexist coverage of the DSK case (just for example). They don’t have a regularly appearing “sexy lady” feature, but they do have a clear editorial policy of taking advantage of any excuse at all to run a photo of a woman in her underwear. People who subscribe ought to be aware of what they’re paying for. (I know, their sports coverage is great — the Post version of “I read Playboy for the articles.”) And how many deliberate distortions does Fox News have to get caught in before watching it is consenting to being lied to?
The outcome of all this I’d really like to see is not the corporate shuttering of News Corp. or even the prosecution of Murdoch et al. It’s the defection of readers, viewers, consumers who have finally had enough of being complicit in such a shady enterprise. I don’t want Murdoch’s outlets to shut down, or clean up their act, to avoid prosecution. I want them to shut down for lack of an audience.