Published on :09-20-2011
Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and controlling shareholder of News Corporation—one of the world’s largest conglomerates—has recently had “the most humble day of [his] life.”1 The 80-year old Australian, who started his career in the news business in Australia in the 1950’s and 60’s, has come under fire for the unscrupulous reporting habits of the staff of his newspapers, mainly The News of the World (NoW) in Britain.
The attack on Murdoch in July 2011 was prompted by the revelation that NoW reporters had deleted voice mail messages from the cell phone of a 13 year old girl who was abducted and murdered in 2002.2 The reporters allegedly did this to make room for newer messages so that they could continue to report on the story and maintain an edge in doing so. This move, however, contributed to the illusion that the girl, Milly Dowler, was still alive.
The case of hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone was the pivot point for revealing allegations that had been brewing for years about the illegal reporting tactics used by NoW reporters—phone hacking, paying off police for leads or information on cases, and possible computer hacking. British police have a list of 4,000 possible targets; among them are celebrities like Sienna Miller and Hugh Grant, sport stars, politicians and crime victims.3
Shortly after the eruption of the scandal, the nearly 168-year old NoW was shuttered. Murdoch also abandoned what would have been the biggest deal of his career—a $12 billion takeover of Britain’s biggest pay television company, British Sky Broadcasting.4 Several high ranking employees in the Murdoch empire also resigned their posts.
Perhaps the most significant employee to resign was Les Hinton. From 1995 until 2007, Mr. Hinton had been the executive chairman of News International, the umbrella company for NoW and other papers. This period saw the most egregious known examples of voice mail hacking by News International employees.
Murdoch has maintained that he was not responsible for “this fiasco” and that his company was not guilty of willful blindness.5
Did Murdoch know?
A former reporter of NoW, Clive Goodman, who was fired, convicted and jailed in 2007 for phone hacking says that senior journalists at NoW were aware of the hacking.6 Clive Goodman, however, is only one employee out of 53,000 that make up News Corporation. Does admission of guilt at the lower levels of a large corporation mean that the company as a whole is guilty? Let us look farther up the chain of command.
Les Hinton was a major player in News Corporation and chairman of Murdoch’s British newspaper arm during some of the years that the abuses took place. He resigned in July in response to the hacking scandal. In 2009, he testified that he had seen no evidence that phone hacking had spread beyond Clive Goodman.7
Another recently resigned employee, Rebekah Brooks is another major player in News Corp. Brooks has always said that she had no knowledge of phone hacking, though she did acknowledge in 2003 that her paper had paid police officers for information—an illegal practice.
James Murdoch, the heir-apparent to the Murdoch empire, said that he also had no knowledge of phone hacking.8 This has been contradicted by a former NoW editor, Colin Myler, and Tom Crone, chief legal adviser to News International who released a joint statement saying James “was mistaken” in saying he had no knowledge of phone hacking.9 James allegedly agreed to settle a lawsuit brought on by a phone hacking victim, and thus would have been aware of the wrongdoing.
Murdoch has said that he was “shocked, appalled and ashamed” when he read two weeks ago of the case that has turned what was a long-running issue at NoW into a all-out firestorm on the Murdoch news empire.10
Wider Media Implications
Murdoch’s empire, which stretches across the mediums of print, broadcast and digital media, also stretches across continents—reaching audiences in over 70 countries. Their website purports that they are responsible for “[creating] and distributing top-quality news, sports and entertainment around the world.” As one of the world’s most powerful and largest media conglomerates, it lays claim to over 175 newspapers and 300 million cable subscribers; that includes Fox News Channel and New York Post, as well as HarperCollins publishing and MySpace.11 In fact, News Corp.’s reach is so wide that you were probably consuming news from them just before reading this article. News Corp. is the most prolific producer of news in the English-speaking world.
At its best, journalism provides an objective view of events that are of public concern. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, fair journalism should: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable. Is it possible for the news sources of News Corp. to act independently when they fall under the same umbrella? Also, consider that newspapers also have to make a profit in order to keep the doors open, a particularly challenging feat with the still-recent global recession. What are the implications of newspapers having to be profitable?
The answer for some reporters (and hired private investigators) was to step beyond the law and out of the bounds of the aforementioned code of ethics—hacking into people’s private lives for the sake of gaining a reporting edge. Do we want to read news that has been procured unfairly, illegally?
The NoW scandal touches not only on the illegal—breeching privacy—but also on the corrupt—paying police for bribes. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that, with the investigations of the parliamentary committee, he hopes to address several key problems raised by the NoW scandal: “The wrongdoing in parts of the media and the potential that there is corruption in the police and…the third…which is the relationship between politicians and the media.” 12
We will all have to tune in to watch the case unfold.
1 “Murdoch: Most humble day of my life.” CBS News. August 11, 2011.
2 “Missing Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked by News of the World.” The Guardian. August 30, 2011.
3 “Q&A: News of the World phone-hacking scandal.” BBC News. August, 4, 2011.
4 “News Corp pulls out of BSkyB bid.” The Guardian. August 30, 2011.
5 “Murdoch Says He Was Misled About Tabloid Scandal.” National Public Radio. July 19, 2011.
6 “Clive Goodman sentenced to four months.” The Guardian. August 30, 2011.
7 “Murdochgate Moves to NY, Focus on Hinton.” Adweek. August 30, 2011.
8 “Murdochs Deny That They Knew of Illegal Acts.” The New York Times. August 11, 2011.
9 “Phone Hacking: Tom Crone and Colin Myler raise the stakes.” The Guardian. August 30, 2011.
10 “Times Topics: Rupert Murdoch.” The New York Times. August 11, 2011.
11 “Rupert Murdoch’s Global Reach.” Forbes. August 29, 2011.
12 “‘Appalled and ashamed’ but not to blame: Murdoch.” National Post. July 19, 2011. 1 “Murdoch: Most humble day of my life.” CBS News. August 11, 2011. 2 “Missing Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked by News of the World.” . August 30, 2011. 3 “Q&A: News of the World phone-hacking scandal.” BBC News. August, 4, 2011. 4 “News Corp pulls out of BSkyB bid.” . August 30, 2011. 5 “Murdoch Says He Was Misled About Tabloid Scandal.” National Public Radio. July 19, 2011. 6 “Clive Goodman sentenced to four months.” . August 30, 2011. 7 “Murdochgate Moves to NY, Focus on Hinton.” . August 30, 2011. 8 “Murdochs Deny That They Knew of Illegal Acts.” . August 11, 2011. 9 “Phone Hacking: Tom Crone and Colin Myler raise the stakes.” . August 30, 2011. 10 “Times Topics: Rupert Murdoch.” . August 11, 2011.11 “Rupert Murdoch’s Global Reach.” . August 29, 2011. 12 “‘Appalled and ashamed’ but not to blame: Murdoch.” . July 19, 2011.