“We are sorry” read the full-page ads that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has taken out in Britain, part of a new atonement campaign clearly orchestrated by the public relations firm brought on to help “manage” the company’s phone-hacking crisis.
Well, they got that right. “Sorry” is as good an adjective as any to describe the Murdoch media empire. It’s a buccaneer enterprise that is scornful of laws and decency and that peddles, as Murdoch’s biographer William Shawcross summarized, “titillation, sensationalism and vulgarity” to gain broad audiences, then uses gossip, tripe, manufactured stories and a distorted lens to further a right-wing ideological agenda.
Sorry is also a good description of regulators and politicians on both sides of the aisle and the ocean who were seduced by Murdoch’s money, feared his power and served as lapdogs rather than watchdogs as he consolidated and expanded his holdings.
In Britain, the scandal erupted with revelations of the hacking of a murdered young girl’s cellphone by the News of the World newspaper, giving her parents false hopes that she might still be alive. The ensuing exposure of routine hacking of the phones of reportedly 4,000 victims, as well as routine payoffs and bribery of police officials for inside information, has now shattered News Corp.’s cover story that this was the work of a rogue journalist or editor, or bent policeman.
The head of Scotland Yard and his deputy have resigned, and 10 people have been arrested so far, including Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International, a British subsidiary of News Corp., and Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor who served as Tory Prime Minister David Cameron’s chief press aide. Les Hinton, who ran News International before Brooks, has resigned as the head of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal.
As Mark Lewis, lawyer for the family of Milly Dowler, the slain girl, said, “This is not just about one individual but about the culture of an organization.” Sorry, indeed.
Nor are the sleaze, scandals and corruption unique to Great Britain. In consolidating his U.S. media holdings, Murdoch is famed for cutting corners and using money and power to gain regulatory favors. As the Nation’s Robert Sherrill wrote in 1995: “[Federal Communications Commission] Commissioners do not like to displease Murdoch. They have done a number of extraordinary favors for him in the past.” Over the past decade, as media reform groups battled to prevent FCC and Congressional moves to undermine controls on media consolidation, Murdoch and his lobbyists have been a constant, well-funded presence — pushing to rewrite media ownership rules so that one corporation, and one man, accumulated extraordinary power.
David Carr reported in the New York Times that News Corp. has paid millions to settle claims against its illegal behavior. In 2009, it settled a suit by a company called Floorgraphics that accused News America, a Murdoch subsidiary, of hacking into its computer system, libeling it and costing it customers. News Corp. settled for $29.5 million and later bought Floorgraphics. Most recently it paid out half a billion dollars in on a settlement with a company called Valassis Communications.
As Carr dryly reports, News America was led by Paul Carlucci who, according to Forbes, used to show the sales staff the scene in “The Untouchables” in which Al Capone beats a man to death with a baseball bat. Clearly, Carlucci was so in sync with the guiding corporate philosophy that these legal embarrassments did not prevent him from remaining publisher of the New York Post and head of News America.
The parallels in the Murdoch scandals to those surrounding America’s biggest banks are striking. As with News Corp., the banks were guilty of illegal acts, and they pushed regulators to strip away restraints. When the scandals hit, they sought to blame individual — or “rogue” — traders, to settle suits out of court, to turn crime into a public relations problem. Billions have been paid out in settlements, but most of the banking barons have sustained their positions and their bonuses, and now are funding a fierce campaign to gut the limited reforms that have been passed.
Similarly, News Corp. may be battered, but the Murdochization of our media goes on. News Corp. has trafficked in the degradation of truth, debate and discourse. Titillation and scandal sell. Ideology trumps facts. Gossip and verbal spitballs supplant the news. Regulatory agencies are still intimidated by money and by power.
As the sky falls on the Murdoch empire, it’s a stark reminder of how important it is to have an independent, fearless, incorruptible media, and a regulatory and legal system able to stand strong against media monopolies that blanket one city or country.
What’s needed is for all relevant authorities, in the U.K. and in the United States, to enforce the law, undertake aggressive investigations of any criminal conduct and expose the culture of collusion between politicians and the media. But, in Murdoch’s world, ethical restraint has been scorned. News becomes entertainment or misinformation; power creates truth rather than reporting it. We are a long way down that scurrilous road. Sorry, indeed.
Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly online column for The Washington Post.