The Murdochs Fall From Grace

It has been a tumultuous week for News International. I could not believe it when the news first broke about phone hacking. It reveals a much darker story about the media. Politicians, journalists and police are entangled in an affair of astronomical disgust. The only welcome news that comes out of the scandals is this: the Murdoch empire is falling from its little pedestal erected by our politicians.

Rupert Murdoch has been allowed to get powerful a long time ago. Margaret Thatcher did little to stop Murdoch acquiring the Times and the Sunday Times in 1981 other than refer the deal to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (a toothless tiger). He set up Sky in 1989 without any obligations. In 1997, Tony Blair went to Australia to meet him. Previous commitments to tough rules on cross-media ownership were dropped silently. David Cameron has, up to now, allowed that trail to continue. [1] Jeremy Hunt, in seeking advice from Ofcom about News of the World and BSkyB, is embarrassing Murdoch (and rightly so). For the first time, politicians are ready to take on the Murdoch empire, despite the Vince Cable affair late last year: Ed MilibandNick Clegg and others are calling for Murdoch to drop his bid to buy the remainder of BSkyB.

At stake in this whole affair is something larger than just media ownership, but what constitutes ‘fit and proper’ news media with which News of the World has been embroiled. The UK press has been going down the wrong road for a very long time. As one news editor put it:

‘We are aiming to have six sex stories a week. Sex and scandal at the highest level of society always sells, but these stories are notoriously difficult to get. We need to be constantly stirring things up. We must get the readers cross: the appalling state of the railways, the neglect of the NHS, the problem of teenage pregnancies, the inability to get bureaucrats to get enough done properly etc. etc.’

In another example: In 2005, Essex County Council had been forced to take children away from violent and abusive parents to safeguard their well-being. The Daily Mail’s headline: ‘Children Taken From Their Parents Because They Were Not Clever Enough’. Essex County Council appealed to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), who did nothing. Uproar by the public. [2] It is when I read news like that when I am truly grateful we have a public BBC (stuff like this would be unimaginable!)

Like it or not, we need more regulation. The PCC is a useless organisation, incapable of anything conducive. Of 28,227 complaints received between 1997 and 2007, only ten per cent were investigated. [3] The PCC must be abolished. In its place, I would like to see a Press Standards Commission (PSC). The Media Standards Trust said as much in 2010, but most of their reforms were not implemented. We need a PSC with powers to set tariffs for damages caused by mis-reporting and to demand proportional apologies and corrections within two weeks of initial publication. [4] It should have the same regulatory ambit as television and radio regulation. After all, why can’t we regulate the press if we can regulate TV and radio? It will not lead to under-reporting, nor will it lead to scared journalists fearing a watchdog. They should only fear the watchdog for libel, slander and plain untruths that so many of our toxic waste newspapers publish day in, day out. Journalists should fear publishing material that has a strongly corrosive influence on both the public and politics.

We need a shift towards ‘civic journalism’ that would: ‘not feed on speculative stories that owe little to reality; not amplify specific incidents into systemic failings; not focus on the ambitions that were not achieved rather than the majority that were; and although civic journalism would have to be ‘right’, as in correct in terms of factual content, it would not need to be right now, in terms of being the first to break a story’. [5] Civic journalism – is this something that we are moving towards post-phone hacking? Something we can hope for? Civic journalism can be emulated, something which Canvas has attempted to do to a degree (although its focus lies much heavier on analysis than journalism).

We need greater plurality in the British media. We do not need more of Murdoch. More than everything else, we need to learn toxic waste management and move towards civic journalism.

[1] Will Hutton, Them and Us (Little, Brown: London, 2010)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Matthew Flinders, ‘In Defence of Politics’, Political Quarterly, 2010 – a very good read by all accounts. Look it up online.

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