Murdoch Schadenfreude has worrying downside, too

July 12, 2011

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.

Comments

Isn’t there some disagreement between legitimate journalism and wiretapping, bribery and extortion? What really seems to be bothering people is that this behavior seems to be OK in the Murdoch Employee Manual, the model employee skill set? You have a real hard time justifying much of the Murdoch Empire under the header legitimate journalism. About as hard a time as Cameron trying to justify why he isn’t resigning in digrace right now ..

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive
 

The proverbial chickens are comin’ home to roost.

What a mitzvah it would be to have News Corp collapse and take it’s right-wing agenda with it.

Murdoch and his ilk are morally bankrupt – I will enjoy watching them squirm before Parliament as the scope of this sleazy, awful scandal unfolds.

As Erlichman sooth, “let them swing in the breeze.”

Posted by mohara | Report as abusive
 

You misunderstand the British system, and the separation of the roles of Chairman and Chief Executive.

Americans fawn before their head of state, and we do before ours.

Our head of state is the queen and we are obliged to bow and scrape before her. The first Lord of Her Majesty’s treasury, or the bag man, is also sometimes called the prime minister.

He is just another servant, like the rest of us.

No one cares if tabloid journalists hack prime ministers. When they hacked Prince William, that is when this all began.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/