Thursday 5 December 2019

Murdoch's media empire has won race to the bottom

The 'News of the World' phone-hacking scandal makes it harder for ethical journalists to do their job now, writes Colum Kenny

IT can be all right for journalists secretly to record conversations. But what Rupert Murdoch's News of the World did went far beyond what is right. It has made life harder for ethical journalists and raises questions about the abuse of media power.

The scandal also makes it more awkward for Murdoch's News Corporation to get full control of the highly lucrative and powerful BSkyB TV company, in which it already has a big stake. Its attempt to do so is awaiting final official approval in Britain.

So with ruthless commercial precision, its News International subsidiary has rapidly closed the News of the World, and left all of that paper's journalists (guilty or not) in the lurch.

The management ethos of Murdoch's media empire encouraged a tabloid race to the bottom. It led the pack. And it is hard to get nearer the bottom than hacking the phone of a murdered schoolgirl and erasing her messages.

Murdoch uses his international media strategically. His Fox TV channel in the USA is aggressively biased and has exacerbated political tensions. His UK papers such as The Sun and the News of the World have long made a mockery of Britain's self-regulating Press Complaints Commission. The result now is likely to be more constraints on all media -- and those in power or with something to hide will welcome that.

Murdoch's empire includes partly Irish editions of the News of the World, The Sun and the Sunday Times. Irish Governments have allowed BSkyB to gain the dominant position among digital TV platforms here. Sky and Sky Sports suck ad revenue and subscriptions out of Ireland but spend little here.

One of Murdoch's publishing houses, Harper, has published Cecelia Ahern, among other authors. Her father, Bertie, last year featured in bizarre TV ads promoting the News of the World, for which he was paid to write a sports column after stepping down as Taoiseach.

At first it seemed that the News of the World had hacked into the phones and messages of famous people only, including Hugh Grant, Lenny Henry, Gwyneth Paltrow and spin guru Max Clifford, and some of the royal family. Then it emerged that senior politicians had also been targeted.

But what has caused outrage and revulsion was the revelation last week that families of missing and murdered children have also had their privacy violated. So too have those of soldiers killed in Iraq and of commuters murdered by terrorists in London on July 7, 2005.

The owners of News of the World have now reacted with ruthless commercial logic to the problem. They are sacrificing one of the oldest and most popular newspapers in the world -- and reportedly seizing the chance to advance plans for a new Sunday paper instead, which may employ fewer staff.

News International chairman James Murdoch issued an apology last week that was stunning for its level of shameless spin. With advertisers and readers fleeing its pages because of the scandal, Rupert's son tried to make a virtue out of empty spaces in the last edition of the News of the World.

He did so by donating what little revenue remains to good causes and by inviting charities to advertise free in the discredited title's final edition. But he stopped short of donating to good causes all of the commercial revenue of all of his group's titles today. That would be taking regret a step too far.

What the phone-hacking revelations also did last week was focus attention on the police and the political establishment in Britain. These have been slow to investigate thoroughly allegations about the News of the World.

Some police officers have had a cosy relationship involving tip-offs (perhaps mutual), with News of the World journalists paying officers who gave them leads to good stories.

And former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, arrested by the police on Friday, acted as adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron until earlier this year. The newspaper group's chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her boss James Murdoch had a private dinner with Mr Cameron at her home in Oxfordshire last Christmas, just days after he had replaced the Lib Dem minister in charge of that BSkyB decision with a Tory.

But there could be another simpler and sinister reason why police and politicians have been slow to act on the phone-hacking scandal. Who knows what phone conversations the News of the World recorded, or what messages it has on file?

Even small indiscretions, such as nasty words about a colleague, could prove very embarrassing if published or leaked elsewhere.

What this scandal does, too, is highlight just how easy it is to hack phones. Nobody should say anything online or on a phone that is truly private. Yet how can we carry on business or relationships in today's world without doing so?

One media organisation that has looked closely at when it is alright for a journalist to record someone secretly is RTE. Its internal guidelines for staff point out that: "The use of surreptitious recording and filming devices can frequently involve breaches of an individual's right to privacy. When programme-makers wish to use these devices they must seek through their Divisional Heads the permission of the Director General in advance of recording."

And RTE will only grant permission if it is in the public interest. "The activity being recorded must be illegal or anti-social or incompetent or negligent or a threat to public health or safety."

It is not yet clear just how high up the Murdoch chain of command any knowledge of phone-hacking went. But what is clear is that his organisation has brought journalism into disrepute by its gross breaches of privacy. This scandal makes it harder for other journalists to do their job.

Professor Colum Kenny is chairman of the DCU Masters in Journalism course

Sunday Independent

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