Murdoch Schadenfreude has worrying downside, too
By Rob Cox and Richard Beales
The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.
Britain’s press and public are having a field day over the travails of News Corp. With good reason: the News of the World’s phone hacking was reprehensible. And, given Rupert Murdoch’s political king-making history in the UK through the pages of News Corp’s newspapers, some backlash is overdue. But there’s a potential dark side to Murdoch Schadenfreude, too.
Observers of the American press are used to its First Amendment free-speech claims. British hacks have no constitutional protection — and they are governed by tough libel laws. Yet Britain’s Fourth Estate speaks truth to power in a way that the U.S. media often fails to do. It would be a shame if the current scandal brought a clampdown that stifled the democratically vital facets of the institution formerly known as Fleet Street.
Take Prime Minister David Cameron’s press conference on Friday. He fielded questions on the hacking and how he came to hire Andy Coulson, his former communications supremo and ex-editor of the News of the World. Journalists asked whether he had “screwed up,” implied his judgment was in question, and suggested his interaction with the Murdochs might have been “unhealthy.” It wasn’t unlike the straightforward back-and-forth in parliament — but it’s far from the deference or even fawning often shown commanders-in-chief elsewhere, including in the United States.
The bluntness may owe much to Britishness, but it could also have something to do with the clout of media barons like Murdoch and the existence of powerful organizations like his News Corp and the publicly funded BBC. Yet it’s worth thinking harder about whether Murdoch should be allowed to buy the 61 percent of satellite broadcaster that News Corp doesn’t already own — something that looks much less likely than it did before the latest scandal broke. The United States, after all, has traditionally not allowed the same owner to control both newspaper and TV outlets in individual local markets.
Reining in overweening media moguls and ensuring their empires are brought to book for breaking existing laws make sense. But stifling reporters’ ability to ask tough questions and sniff out stories — like the phone hacking itself — is another matter. In his press conference, Cameron used derivatives of the word “regulate” some 15 times. The danger, clear to some in the British press already, is that any response to the furor could squash legitimate journalism. In the land that already has the superinjunction — a legal privacy device that prevents hacks even from saying they can’t report on something — that might suit some politicians, but their voters should be wary.