Rupert Murdoch has been suitably humbled. His attempt to take total control of BSkyB is in tatters. News of the World is, after 168 years, a memory. People have been arrested, Parliament has asked questions, investigations are underway, and resignations have been tendered. In all likelihood the ongoing investigations in Britain will result in worldwide scrutiny and hard times for News International, the parent of News of the World (NOTW) and many others.
All’s well then. The wheels of justice are turning. To cultivate further speculation, in an example of business quirkiness a small portion of a huge conglomerate is endangering the whole.
However, it seems while many are saying that News of the World was wrong, there’s limited condemnation of the practice that got it into trouble in the first place – or, so it seems. As well, geography has some influence on the story, geography and ownership. Virtually everyone in Britain is having a go at Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers and television media. In the States, FOX news the most popular news channel (and Murdoch owned) is trying to understand why so much is being made of this tempest in a teapot. The extreme right oriented news channel has been spewing anti-liberal conspiracy propaganda in defence of its owner since the news broke.
Worse though, it is disconcerting to hear the application of a double standard around the hacking of celebrity phones and that of Millie Dowler, the 13 year old abducted and murdered whose phone was hacked. NOTW deleted phone messages on Millie’s phone, leading her parents to believe she might yet be alive – sadly, she was not. More than one media outlet seems to have trouble coming down firmly against ‘all’ hacking.
Commentary on this matter has been coming from all quarters. The press itself has had a lot to say. Not all of it terribly appropriate – some would suggest that some hacking was ‘okay’. Really?
There are a fair number of sarcastic comments that come to mind when I hear that illegality can somehow be justified when revealing illegality (or, purported illegality).
At times like this, the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg are paraded before the public to display the needed and necessary revelation of illegal secret acts through questionable means. What the press fails to describe is Ellsberg’s attempts to address his concerns through official channels before taking the necessary step of putting the Administration’s lies before the public.
As well, Ellsberg’s name is misused in support of Wikileaks and specifically Julian Assange, who it would seem has a less judicious view of what constitutes legality when allegedly encouraging the theft of documents containing speculated illegalities.
To suggest that the press should be able to break into someone’s house to investigate their private dealings for a story (legal or otherwise) would receive howls of objection. Yet, hacking someone’s phone – essentially the same thing – warrants wide displeasure only upon the achievement of certain circumstances. Hacking Sienna Miller’s phone – okay. Hacking Millie Dowler’s phone – not so much.
The public’s cognitive dissonance in this matter is part of the problem.
In the Western World people aspire to the fame, riches, or power of those who achieve it, we exalt the powerful, the celebrity. The only thing that might attract the attention of the public more is watching the demise and crater-creating fall of these same worshipped few. The parade of names is long. Our voyeuristic tendencies serve us poorly. Yet, they are tendencies that trend toward insatiability and the purveyors of titillation are there to meet our need for a fix, by any means possible.
To address this public and media shortcoming, there has been talk of legislation and regulation – yet what is needed is prosecution.
Creating laws to stifle the press are not going to help. As well, legislating ownership of the media is difficult and potentially no less limiting than curtailing press freedoms.
Breaking the law is and remains breaking the law. As such, when it occurs it needs treatment in the customary manner. Britain has begun this process.
The real question though will not be whether NOTW reporters are found guilty of committing a crime; News International is fined, or if Rupert Murdoch is forced out of British media. The real question, will the public continue to demand more and more gossip and through the crack in the door details of people’s lives, is the matter at hand. Surely the public’s appetites are not about to change.
News media will always pursue a story. They will always seek to attract more readers or viewers. This is how they operate and what the public demands. So long as the law doesn’t get broken – it seems the press will do what they do and we – will continue to buy their goods.
The question of whether or not the law is broken, and what happens when it is, becomes an important question. While Freedom of the Press is a Western concept that carries great weight in democracies, there are other demands democracies want satisfied. Among these demands is the sense of ‘good conduct’ and ‘justice’. Catching a movie star sexing it up with someone other than his or her wife or husband is important news. Yet, while it doesn’t turn the public’s head there is a certain disgust with the purveyors of this news who have dumpster dived to obtain the evidence or chartered helicopters to overfly celebrity homes. Yet, as I said, we still find it hard to look away. When the press steps too far though, when as in the cases of Sienna Miller, Gordon Brown, or Millie Dowler they transgress the law they deserve punishment.
As the press has our trust – its breach demands swift and severe action – in a court, where such matters belong.