UK Media Scandal Reveals Weakness Of US Media

Dave Johnson

I am in the UK this week. You can barely turn on the TV here without hearing about the “phone-hacking” scandal from outraged voices across the spectrum. It is a full-blown, 24/7 scandal. The thing that might be most astonishing to Americans, though, is that people are hearing about it at all. In fact, news shows here in the UK are featuring people questioning the power and influence of Murdoch’s news operations and its relationships with politicians, and authorities are investigating criminal activities by the media. Can you imagine any of that happening here?

England is in the middle of a full-blown, nation-engrossing scandal over the criminal behavior of Rupert Murdoch’s media companies. There is a full-on media frenzy. There are police investigations. The Parliament is looking into things. The Prime Minister is appointing an investigative commission. People will be arrested and will go to jail if found guilty. Things are different in the UK from how they are in the US.

Initially the phone-hacking scandal was a little 2007 story about a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, News Of The World, that was involved in hacking into the voicemail messages of members of the royal family. The scandal bubbled around but wasn’t getting much coverage at all until July 4, when The Guardian broke the story that Murdoch’s News Of The World had people hacking into the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old murder victim who had disappeared in 2002. The voicemail hackers deleted messages from the full mailbox so they could get more messages left by the girl’s distraught mother, thereby making police think the disappeared girl was alive, impeding the investigation and giving her family false hope.

This revelation outraged the public and brought focus on previous relvelations. It also triggered numerous new revelations of criminal activity that went beyond News Of The World, beyond just phone-hacking and into all kinds of things incuding bribing plice and operating with impunity at several other Murdoch-owned media outlets in the UK. The revelations have brought to public attention the cozy relationship between conservative government officials and Murdoch’s organization, with the Conservative Prime Minister even employing the paper’s Sunday editor – who had to have known about the paper’s criminal activities – as his spokesperson. And the revelations continue, with new criminal activities disclosed at more and more Murdoch-owned outlets every day.

Murdoch tried to contain the scandal by closing News Of The World, but this gave the appearance if not the reality of a cover-up. There was speculation that the paper was involved in many more criminal activities that would have come to light if the paper remained open, and the closure was an effort to keep police from being able to serve search warrants, leading to accusations of a Watergate-style shredding operation at the closed paper’s facilities.

Meanwhile the people at the top of Murdoch’s empire continue collecting paychecks, while the employees of News Of The World are the casualties of the conservatives at the top of the the operation. The people who did the work, staffed the offices and pones, ground out the paper every day, etc., are now on the street, without jobs, thanks to the criminal shenanigans of those at the top. Does this sound familiar? (Hint: Lehman Brothers, Enron, the entire US economy…)

Murdoch In The US Is FOX, WSJ and the New York Post

FOX News is a well-known Murdoch-owned outlet in the US. The New York Post is another. The Wall Street Journal is one more. The Journal’s publisher is Les Hinton, who has worked with Murdoch for 52 years and who oversaw News Of The World before coming to the Wall Street Journal. In 2007 Hinton reassured an investigative committee of the British Parliament that an internal investigation of Murdoch’s media outlets in the UK showed them to be operating within the law after the initial phone-hacking was discovered.

As Media Matters put it, “That’s right: Hinton, who ran the show for Murdoch as phone hacking became standard operating procedure, is now publisher of the one of the largest newspapers in the U.S.”

The story is beginning to reveal much about the power and influence of Murdoch’s conservative media operations. It is showing very cozy relationships between Murdoch and conservative politicians who enjoy favorable coverage from his outlets. Of course, the immediate closing of a profitable newspaper also revealed that the Murdoch operation saw the paper as a propaganda operation, not a business.

So in the UK this scandal is breaking wide open, and is forcing a look at Murdoch’s empire, its influence, its relationship with politicians, and the extent to which it maintains a culture of operating outside or above the law.

Not Like The US

This scandal was broken and pursued by persistent investigative journalism, the kind that is rarely funded by American corporate media these days. It involves the willingness of media organizations to look into the practices of other outlets. It also involves the willingness of some media outlets to question the coziness of conservative leaders and conservative media.

Coverage of the scandal reveals differences between the British and US media. It is shocking to see actual discussions on every news show about whether the media has gotten too close to politicians, and is providing them cover. There are very loud demands for investigations into criminal activity that has been exposed, coming from a diverse array of voices. There are media organizations criticizing their competition and questioning their practices. Compare all of this to the way American news outlets work now.

In the US there are winks and nods all the way around. “Journalists” understand which side their bread is buttered on and where the best career paths are found. Just when was the last time you saw, heard or read a representative of a labor organization explaining to people the benefits of joining a unions? All can see that few rise in their career by questioning the practices of big corporations or Wall Street. None rise questioning America’s militarism or stratospheric military budget. But careers are harmed by going after certain interests in our country, while certainly no careers are harmed by going after liberals, environmentalists, or those who wish to protect consumers or working people or labor organizations.

Maybe this Murdoch scandal will bow up to the point where the unimaginable happens here. Will Republicans hold hearings looking into the operation of Fox News or the Wall Street Journal? I think the expression we Yanks still use in America is “Fat Chance.”

P.S. Media Matters has a petition to Congress, asking them to hold hearings looking into News Corp’s practices here. Click here to go sign it.

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