MEDIA: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Gillard takes aim at Murdoch press
, August 6, 2011
Criticism of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — publisher of The Australian, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Melbourne’s Herald Sun, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail and many other overseas newspapers — is a knee-jerk reaction to both the British scandal and a reflection of the federal Labor Government’s hostility to News Corporation, which has been highly critical of the Government’s proposed carbon tax.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has said that Australians have “some hard questions that they want answered” from News Corporation; Bob Brown has called for an inquiry into media ownership; and Privacy Minister Brendan O’Connor has said that Australians expect that privacy laws will be reviewed in light of the recent News of the World scandal in Britain.
Revelations that News of the World journalists illegally hacked the voicemail accounts of many people over the years, that the newspaper paid police for information while London’s Metropolitan Police failed to prosecute phone-hacking, and that senior executives of News Corporation wield excessive influence over government policy, are deeply disturbing, and are now the subject of at least two inquiries in the United Kingdom.
But these issues go far beyond one newspaper, and one publisher.
There is currently a media feeding frenzy engulfing News Corporation and its owner, Rupert Murdoch — often conducted by the same people who have endorsed Julian Assange, whose reputation is based on the fact that his Wikileaks website publishes stolen documents.
The popular fury was partly prompted by News Corporation’s efforts to extend its 30 per cent interest in Britain’s satellite TV network BSkyB, to full ownership, but also by resentment towards Rupert Murdoch’s undoubted political influence and his commercial success in both the UK and the United States, where he has many enemies.
It is a matter of record that every government since Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain in the 1980s had sought the endorsement of media proprietors, and particularly, of Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch, in turn, has been willing to support different political parties, depending on personalities and circumstances.
The effect of the revelations have been extraordinary. Since the scandal broke, News of the World, the most profitable tabloid newspaper in London, has been closed down.
Several senior executives of News Corp have been arrested; two senior Met police have resigned; the Murdochs and a former editor of News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, have appeared before a House of Commons committee; and the House of Commons has been convened by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to debate the matter and authorise the establishment of new inquiries into the allegations.
However, the British tabloids have for years been involved in dubious methods of getting information, and nothing to date has been done about it.
These include intrusive photography by the paparazzi, including the 1997 car chase in Paris which led to the death of Princess Diana; secretly intercepting and recording telephone calls, including calls by members of the Royal Family; and the appalling voicemail hacking by a News of the World journalist of the mobile phone of a murdered school girl.
For years, both the police and politicians have used the British media as a means of getting their stories out, as viewers of the satirical but alarming Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister series, will recall.
While attention has properly been paid to the misconduct of senior News of the World executives, the same practices have been pursued by other British tabloids. This has been documented in books written in recent years.
Nick Davies, a journalist for the left-liberal Guardian, a rival to Murdoch’s empire, wrote, “For years, most Fleet Street newspapers have been using illegal techniques to get access to information.”
Speaking on the TV program, NewsWipe, in 2009, Davies said, “The more you look at Fleet Street’s use of the Dark Arts, the dirtier it gets.
“People are very frightened of the bullying Fleet Street newspapers. Governments, in particular, don’t like getting into fights with newspapers, so they back off.”
He added, “I think if you ask, ‘Where did the Dark Arts come from?,’ ultimately it’s about commercial pressure.
“It’s about trying to get stories that nobody else has, without putting in the money or resources that you should. And like so much of what’s gone wrong with our news organisations, ultimately it has to do with being corrupted by commercialism, and the Dark Arts are an example of that for sure.”
One way in which politicians — from all sides — and the police sought to deal with the influence of media figures was by employing them, and so it was that senior journalists and News Corporation executives found their way onto the payroll of police and politicians, including present and past prime ministers of Britain.
Because the police relied on the media’s co-operation to convey information to the public, they rarely pursued cases of illegality (except if they involved the Royal Family).
Additionally, the campaign by the journalists’ unions to be given legal immunity to protect their sources of information — all done in the name of “freedom of speech”, of course — was another reason why police were unwilling to prosecute clear breaches of the law.
News Corporation’s British publications also stand accused of paying bribes to news sources. But what is the difference between bribes and “chequebook journalism”? The latter is a common practice in many countries, including Australia, where weekly magazines regularly “buy” stories, and television networks compete for exclusive on-camera interviews.
Last month, America’s Cable News Network (CNN) confirmed that it had paid for photos which led to the resignation of U.S. House of Representative member Anthony Weiner after a “sexting” scandal, and a recent New York Times article detailed numerous instances of U.S. networks paying for access to sources, often in the guise of purchasing licensing rights.
Even the precise method by which News of the World journalists hacked voicemail accounts is a matter of public record.
Writing in his book The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade, the former editor of the Daily Mirror (not a Murdoch publication), Piers Morgan, wrote: “Apparently if you don’t change the standard security code that every phone comes with, then anyone can call your number and, if you don’t answer, tap in the standard four-digit code to hear all your messages. I’ll change mine just in case, but it makes me wonder how many public figures and celebrities are aware of this little trick.”
This book was published in 2005 — six years ago!
The inquiries being conducted in Britain will, one hopes, deal with all the abuses which have become common in the British media over the years, not exclusively those involving journalists and executives of News Corporation.
What is being witnessed in Britain today is what the great 19th-century British historian and statesman, T.B. Macaulay, described in 1831 as “the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality”.
He added, “Decimation is always an objectionable mode of punishment.... It is an irrational practice, even when adopted by military tribunals. When adopted by the tribunal of public opinion, it is infinitely more irrational.”
It is to be hoped that in the aftermath of this affair, there will be a cool examination of the facts, and if necessary, new laws to protect the public interest. But, fundamentally, there needs to be a reassertion of the fact that no-one — neither journalist, politician nor policeman — is above the law.