The phone-hacking scandal that has rocked Rupert Murdoch’s empire has exposed the debased standards of journalism at Murdoch’s English tabloid papers. His “reporters” (if they deserve the name) stooped to tapping the private cell phone conversations of popular celebrities, the British royal family, and mourning relatives of a murdered schoolgirl. Reporters at the News of the World were not out to produce investigative journalism for the sake of educating the public. They were out to find sensationalism, gossip and material to hype their headlines. News of the World has received its just reward. In the aftermath of the scandal, it’s now defunct. This is a boon to the English public, who now have one less prurient and unethical tabloid paper to distract their attention.
But as frightening as these revelations are, worse still is the disclosure of how powerful Rupert Murdoch’s reign of journalistic terror was. It appears that agents at the main arm of English police enforcement, Scotland Yard, were aware that Murdoch’s tabloids were breaking the law, but looked the other way. An unusual number of former News of the World editors and writers obtained subsequent gainful employment in the Scotland Yard press offices. The connections between English law enforcement and Rupert Murdoch’s empire are suspicious enough that the head of Scotland Yard, Sir Paul Stephenson, tendered his resignation. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has had to answer questions regarding his personal acquaintanceship with Murdoch. One former News of the World editor worked as the prime minister’s “media advisor.” This same man, Andy Coulson, is now entangled in the phone hacking scandal. Murdoch is not in the business of journalism for any of the reasons that dignify the profession.
The Murdoch approach to journalism consists of dumbing down news content and accustoming his readers to stories that appeal to the lowest common denominator. All the while he uses his journalistic outlets to further his conservative political agenda. Murdoch’s holdings in the United States include The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal — and the Fox News Channel. Fox News is a major engine behind the Republican Party, and is one of the most biased news sources Americans have the misfortune to call their own.
The immediate question for Murdoch and his supporters may be how to hold his financial empire together. But the long-term question is how reliable are our newspapers and our cable media outlets and whether they have a role that is greater than mere entertainment or furthering the agenda of their owners. News reporting has to be a public service. Just as no public deserves a state-controlled media in the hands of a totalitarian government, no public deserves media outlets that are the clandestine tools of a king-making billionaire. Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, S.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.