By Saul Landau
Rupert Murdoch, the Australia-born media tycoon, finally got his you-know-what caught in the wringer.
Murdoch’s unethical newspapers hacked thousands of private phone messages, including those of actors Hugh Grant and Jude Law, as well as Prince William and Prince Harry. The scandal may even involve Queen Elizabeth II, as there are allegations that Murdoch’s reporters may have paid her bodyguards for information that wasn’t supposed to be released to the media or the public. The intimate lives of murder victims, their families, and the relatives of dead soldiers also became hacking fodder.
In Murdoch’s tabloids, such as The Sun in the UK and the New York Post on this side of the pond, stories on poverty, unemployment, and foreclosures get dwarfed by reports of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears making X-rated videos before going into rehab. Murdoch discovered that Protestant England’s repressive sexual culture, exported to its former colonies in the United States of America, makes for great markets for selling sex as a news commodity.
His properties also include more sober titles like The Wall Street Journal, the most widely circulated U.S. newspaper. Until Murdoch bought it in 2007 by acquiring Dow Jones & Co., the Journal’s news coverage was generally pro-business but free from the rabidly right-wing bias of the newspaper’s editorial pages. That distinction, however, has since faded.
Behind Murdoch’s propaganda machine lies a drab political and economic imperative bent on destroying any form of regulation on capital. In this country, for example, commentators on his Fox News network spew verbal venom on proposals Murdoch opposes, such as taxing billionaires and regulating corporations and banks. They imply that the government will always squander taxpayers’ money. Really? Just imagine life without cops, firemen, schools, or traffic lights.
To achieve that end and expand his $47 billion News Corp. publishing and broadcasting empire, Murdoch intimidated the powerful. The subservient players in his game of politics have given the unelected media baron dominant sway over public discourse.
In the United States, Murdoch’s Fox News perpetuated the fiction that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al-Qaeda. He didn’t, but the media tycoon never atoned for that journalistic sin.
Recently, several members of Congress have asked authorities to investigate if News of the World, a Murdoch newspaper that ceased publication in July after advertisers pulled their support for it, also hacked into the voicemails of relatives of 9/11 victims. In a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, House Homeland Security Committee chair Pete King (R-NY) said journalists should face felony charges if evidence is found.
Reporters have begun to ask the Watergate questions about the 80-year-old Murdoch. What did he know and when did he know it? That’s beside the point. He created the perfect atmosphere for criminal activities and called it “freedom of the press.” Buying political influence and extorting protection from the cops aren’t acceptable ways to exercise that right.
Murdoch has more to worry about than the damage his employees’ methods have done to people’s lives, his undermining of the public trust, or his manipulation of popular taste from the banal to the gross. Namely, he now faces the real possibility that this indignity will cost him a $12.5 billion deal with British Sky Satellite (BSkyB), the highly profitable satellite TV enterprise. Murdoch already owns 39 percent of the company, which has 10 million subscribers and is managed by his son James Murdoch. He anticipated adding the remaining 61 percent stake to his media empire, until recently.
After years of being pushed out of sight, Murdoch’s transgressions began to have consequences this summer when the public learned that News of the World journalists likely manipulated voicemails from 13-year-old Milly Dowler’s phone, leading to gripping headlines about the missing girl. English parents grew enraged after learning voicemails were intercepted and deleted from the girl’s device. That kept the teen’s family hopeful she was still alive and delayed the real news of her 2002 abduction and murder.
Their outrage has leveled a major blow on his smarmy empire, five years after British authorities first began to investigate reports of illegal phone hacking.
Journalists might also want to investigate Murdoch for attempted murder — of their profession.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. www.ips-dc.org