The News International scandal has provoked plenty of – rather belated – discussion on how global media ownership has become concentrated into the hands of a few (media convergence). Rupert Murdoch seems to have regarded his corporation as being above the law, and more powerful than national governments, but, up until this point, no one has challenged his right to own so much of the media that no one felt comfortable speaking against him.
Former Newspaper editor Bruce Guthrie outlines the impact Murdoch-driven convergence had in his native Australia. Murdoch owns 70% of all newspapers Down Under. This means that if, like Bruce Guthrie, you are involved in a court case against Murdoch’s News Limited, the outcome of the case is unlikely to receive much press attention, even if it involves the CEO spending a day lying in the witness box:
The judge in the case had this to say about the News Limited CEO: “There were aspects about his evidence which lead me to be cautious about accepting a number of critical features of it.”
Of course, no readers of News Limited papers ever got to read the judge’s comments or similar ones he made about other News witnesses. They simply chose not to report his misgivings. Fairfax did, though. And the ABC. But almost 70 per cent of Australia’s major newspapers didn’t.
That’s the thing about having such enormous media power – you can pretty much create your own reality. It requires a great sense of responsibility, but clearly News Corporation, in Britain at least, has failed that test.
For years, governments have stood by and watched large media conglomerates gobble up smaller companies so they could create their own reality, and write their own cheques. Despite its profits in the UK, News International made judicious use of offshore havens in order to avoid paying the full whack of taxes – this is despite (or perhaps because of) the influence Murdoch so clearly enjoyed having over the leadership of successive UK governments. In the US, Fox News sets many political agendas despite, again, News Corp paying anything like their full obligation of taxes on US profits. Representation without taxation.
The current, ever-burgeoning scandal has achieved what no amount of hand-wringing on the part of legislators and media commentators could do: it’s blown open the pretence that it was OK to have a single corrupt corporate culture set the national media agenda. Politicians are elected and accountable; hundreds of them rose and fell while Murdoch remained remote and untouchable, but just as influential. Not any more.
As News International crumbles under pressure from shareholders and governments alike, a lot of pertinent questions are being asked about media ownership. Why haven’t these questions been asked before? Why haven’t the public seemed to care that so much power and influence was concentrated into the hands of an unelected, unaccountable few? Well, they obviously didn’t take Media Studies at school.
The Manifesto For Media Education has this to say:
What is being exposed here the fact that one man and his family, has dominated UK Media, moulding it, and so society with it, into a shape that suited their needs. Whether this is how celebrities or royalty are seen, how politicians should be treated, how sections of the society are represented or how we should see the nation as whole. All this has a very visible, tangible and actual affect on the way we perceive, behave and respond. If we accept this process happens and if we don’t equip young people with the tools to deconstruct their experience, to look behind the representations and the stories, then there is the risk that the media will remain too influential.
That’s why Media Studies is so vital – it’s about creating the understanding that EVERYTHING in the media is constructed and so has the finger/thought prints of those constructed all over it. So asking WHY are things being constructed in certain ways is essential – otherwise naturalised American-Australian families with crap glasses get to shape how WE perceive the world.
Rupert’s Gorilla Tactics – Sydney Morning Herald
Hacking Scandal Shows Why Media Education Is So Essential– Manifesto For Media Studies
The Hollywood Reporter has this bemused account of a US journalist’s experiences as celebrity-bait for the News of the World:
Early on, the job entailed transcribing audiotapes that sleazy women made of footballers with whom they had sex. The girls would set up famous players, then sell them out to the paper in order to get some cash and fame. The recordings usually consisted of extended, loud orgasms; I would swear they were faking it as I transcribed the grunts and groans for my editors.
I was soon switched over to harder reporting, and my next assignment took me to Brighton, where I was instructed very specifically to catch Mike Tyson in a cocaine orgy. Editors sent me to a grungy video shop above a pub in East London, where I collected a tiny “pen cam,” signing it out on an account the paper maintained there. Back at the NOTW offices, staffers stitched it onto the lining of a hideous pine-green windbreaker four sizes too big for me. They aimed the camera out of a front button.
Sick over the task but afraid I’d be shipped home if I didn’t come through, I managed to locate Tyson at a hotel, befriend him and his posse and take some photos of him with strippers with the pen cam. I passed the info on to a fellow reporter and cried when it hit the paper the next day. The editors’ embellishments detailed three-way sex and other activities I had not witnessed. They made it look as if Tyson was in the midst of an orgy in the lobby.
Confessions of a News of the World reporter– The Hollywood Reporter
As controversy rages over News International’s investigative reporting techniques, the accountability of journalists and editors is being scrutinised across the board. A self-righteous moral panic is in full swing, with calls for a new Press Complaints Commission, and tighter controls for journalists – it’s ironic that many of these calls are coming from journalists themselves.
Whilst the corporate culture at News International appears to have condoned some very shady practices, investigative journalism by nature is not about playing by a rule book. Journalists on the trail of a story need to get information that others do not want them to get. If your interviewee answers questions with a polite “No Comment”, what are you going to do? Go on to the next story, or keep probing, using any means at your disposal? Most journalists are committed to the latter course of action, which begs the question, where do you draw the line?
It seems the British public draw the line somewhere between hacking Royal phones and deleting the voicemails of a murdered teenage girl. But why is the former any less reprehensible than the latter? In The Independent, Dominic Lawson outlines some previous responses to phone hacking stories:
Thus when the Sunday People bugged the flat in which the Tory Cabinet Minister David Mellor was conducting an affair with Antonia de Sancha, nobody would have listened if Mellor had complained about being bugged, because we were all too busy enjoying his humiliation. The Royal Family, even more than libidinous politicians, were the principal targets of the red-top phone-tappers. Thus in 1992 the public were regaled with the so-called Squidgygate tapes, Diana Princess of Wales’s recorded conversations with her friend James Gilbey – apparently the result of the tapping of Diana’s landline. Within weeks the same public feasted avidly on the bugged night-time telephone conversation between the Prince of Wales and his mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles; millions rang a telephone line set up by the Sun, to hear the tape played on a continual loop.
Lawson argues that if there were no public appetite for “kiss-and-tell” stories, newspapers wouldn’t print them, and journalists wouldn’t be under such pressure to obtain salacious details by fair means or foul. However, social comparison is an intrinsic part of our psyche: it’s easy to see the appeal of downward comparison (gaining satisfaction from learning about those whose problems are worse than our own), but upward comparison (reading about the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful) can be a bitter pill to swallow. This is where newspaper exclusives come in. Upward comparison becomes downward comparison at the first whiff of scandal (“she may be rich, beautiful and famous but her husband’s been boffing the nanny”), which makes people more content with their place in the social order. The masses are less likely to protest at the unequal distribution of wealth, inequitable tax laws, and the hegemonic dominance of certain body types, if they are led to believe that wealth and status always has its dark side (hence those “secret misery of Angelina/Jennifer/Kim/Oprah” stories that grace magazine covers every week). Social comparison, as curated by scandal sheets like the News of The World, helps reinforce social structures. This is why politicians cosy up to journalists and newspaper proprietors; they all want the same thing thing, which is to reinforce the status quo.
Tabloid newspapers have traditionally represented themselves as ‘the voice of the people’. In The Guardian, George Monbiot points out that this is simply not the case:
The papers cannot announce that their purpose is to ventriloquise the concerns of multimillionaires; they must present themselves as the voice of the people. The Sun, the Mail and the Express claim to represent the interests of the working man and woman. These interests turn out to be identical to those of the men who own the papers.
So the rightwing papers run endless exposures of benefit cheats, yet say scarcely a word about the corporate tax cheats. They savage the trade unions and excoriate the BBC. They lambast the regulations that restrain corporate power. They school us in the extrinsic values – the worship of power, money, image and fame – which advertisers love but which make this a shallower, more selfish country. Most of them deceive their readers about the causes of climate change. These are not the obsessions of working people. They are the obsessions thrust upon them by the multimillionaires who own these papers.
Monbiot calls for a code of ethics that would make journalists more conscious that they have a role to play outside the circles of power, a kind of Hippocratic oath:
Our primary task is to hold power to account. We will prioritise those stories and issues which expose the interests of power. We will be wary of the relationships we form with the rich and powerful, and ensure that we don’t become embedded in their society. We will not curry favour with politicians, businesses or other dominant groups by withholding scrutiny of their affairs, or twisting a story to suit their interests.
“We will stand up to the interests of the businesses we work for, and the advertisers which fund them. We will never take money for promulgating a particular opinion, and we will resist attempts to oblige us to adopt one.
“We will recognise and understand the power we wield and how it originates. We will challenge ourselves and our perception of the world as much as we challenge other people. When we turn out to be wrong, we will say so.”
While these are noble sentiments, it remains to be seen whether they can fly in an increasingly fragmented electronic media, driven by a 24/7 need to get hits from readers, rather than selling copies to a loyal readership at the newsstand. Nonetheless, this past week has proved above all else that newspapers still have an important function to fulfill in our society, especially when they move beyond simply reporting stories about the elite, and move towards commenting on and condemning them. Thomas Jefferson famously said “No government ought to be without censors & where the press is free, no one ever will”. The New York Times suggests that the News Of The World’s demise may have a ripple effect on the rather moribund version of democracy currently active in the UK.
In truth, a kind of British Spring is under way, now that the News Corporation’s tidy system of punishment and reward has crumbled. Members of Parliament, no longer fearful of retribution in Mr. Murdoch’s tabloids, are speaking their minds and giving voice to the anger of their constituents. Meanwhile, social media has roamed wild and free across the story, punching a hole in the tiny clubhouse that had been running the country. Democracy, aided by sunlight, has broken out in Britain.
We Got The Phone Hacking We Wanted – The Independent
This media is corrupt – we need a Hippocratic oath for journalists – The Guardian
A Tabloid Shame, Exposed By Earnest Rivals – New York Times