As Murdoch’s News Empire Crumbles: Rule of Law Implications

July 14, 2011
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News Corp International is the name of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire that stretches from his native Australia [owning many of the largest Australian newspapers] thru Europe with many interests based in England [including Harpers Collin Book Publishing, Sky Italia and other Sky TV networks, several newpapers including the Sunday Times and the just now defunct News of the World] plus major holding in the U.S. with Twentieth Century Fox in movies, Fox network in TV, Fox News in cable news, the complete set of Dow Jones financial newspapers and other properties. News Corp outlets have a reputation in the newspaper and media business of being relentless if not ruthless in their journalistic practices[see here for an assessment of Fox News]. The verdict is now ruthless.

The  scandal that has broken out in England shows that  News Corp newspapers have been criminally and  journalistically negligent on a massive scale. These include illegally wiretapping/hacking into the phones of politicians, movie stars, families of British war casualties and crime victims; bribing police and public officials to get access to information and to suppress investigations; plus stealing medical and other confidential records from various databases. And it was not just the tabloid scandal sheets like  the Sun and the now shuttered News of the World but also the prestigous Sunday Times and the News Corp TV channels that were also complicit in the gross misdeeds.

Newsweeks Carl Bernstein raises the depth of the issue calling this Murcdoch’s Watergate –

The hacking scandal currently shaking Rupert Murdoch’s empire will surprise only those who have willfully blinded themselves to that empire’s pernicious influence on journalism in the English-speaking world. Too many of us have winked in amusement at the salaciousness without considering the larger corruption of journalism and politics promulgated by Murdoch Culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
The facts of the case are astonishing in their scope. Thousands of private phone messages hacked, presumably by people affiliated with the Murdoch-owned News of the World newspaper, with the violated parties ranging from Prince William and actor Hugh Grant to murder victims and families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arrest of Andy Coulson, former press chief to Prime Minister David Cameron, for his role in the scandal during his tenure as the paper’s editor. The arrest (for the second time) of Clive Goodman, the paper’s former royals editor. The shocking July 7 announcement that the paper would cease publication three days later, putting hundreds of employees out of work.

Time Magazine’s Massimo Calabressi speculates on whether Murcdoch’s troubles will cross the Atlantic to the US. Newsweek’s Bernstein implies the ambition was there:

Almost every prime minister since the Harold Wilson era of the 1960s and ’70s has paid obeisance to Murdoch and his unmatched power. When Murdoch threw his annual London summer party for the United Kingdom’s political, journalistic, and social elite at the Orangery in Kensington Gardens on June 16, Prime Minister Cameron and his wife, Sam, were there, as were Labour leader Ed Miliband and assorted other cabinet ministers.

Murdoch associates, present and former—and his biographers—have said that one of his greatest long-term ambitions has been to replicate that political and cultural power in the United States. For a long time his vehicle was the New York Post—not profitable, but useful for increasing his eminence and working a wholesale change not only in American journalism but in the broader culture as well…

Then came the unfair and imbalanced politicized “news” of the Fox News Channel—showing (again) Murdoch’s genius at building an empire on the basis of an ever-descending lowest journalistic denominator. It, too, rests on a foundation that has little or nothing to do with the best traditions and values of real reporting and responsible journalism: the best obtainable version of the truth. In place of this journalistic ideal, the enduring Murdoch ethic substitutes gossip, sensationalism, and manufactured controversy.

And the record of misdeeds at just one of Murdoch’s US media properties, Fox News, shows the same chronic repeated offenses in doctoring/editing stories to fit the Fox/News Corp agenda. The revelation of Fox News misdeeds by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is the stuff of comic legend. But there is a deep darkside to this as the chronicles at mediamatters.org show. Thus it was a surprise when the NYTimes David Brooks and Washington Posts Ruth Marcus on PBS NewsHour dismissed the prospect of Murdoch’s troubles crossing the Atlantic to the US since supposedly the journalistic traditions are so different and the breech of journalistic integrity is not nearly so bad in the US. So this leniency raises the issue of rule of law for the elites once again.
Rule Of  Law Implications
One of the continuing problems from the Financial Meltdown has been the appalling lack of civil or criminal indictments against those who perpetrated the  many financial misdeeds. The NYTimes caught the gist of this with their comparison of the prosecutions of those responsible for the  S&L  debacle of the late 1980’s and early 1990s with what has happened to the those involved in the 2007 to 2010 Financial Meltdown:

But several years after the financial crisis, which was caused in large part by reckless lending and excessive risk taking by major financial institutions, no senior executives have been charged or imprisoned, and a collective government effort has not emerged. This stands in stark contrast to the failure of many savings and loan institutions in the late 1980s. In the wake of that debacle, special government task forces referred 1,100 cases to prosecutors, resulting in more than 800 bank officials going to jail. Among the best-known: Charles H. Keating Jr., of Lincoln Savings and Loan in Arizona, and David Paul, of Centrust Bank in Florida.
Former prosecutors, lawyers, bankers and mortgage employees say that investigators and regulators ignored past lessons about how to crack financial fraud.

As the crisis was starting to deepen in the spring of 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation scaled back a plan to assign more field agents to investigate mortgage fraud. That summer, the Justice Department also rejected calls to create a task force devoted to mortgage-related investigations, leaving these complex cases understaffed and poorly funded, and only much later established a more general financial crimes task force.

Leading up to the financial crisis, many officials said in interviews, regulators failed in their crucial duty to compile the information that traditionally has helped build criminal cases. In effect, the same dynamic that helped enable the crisis — weak regulation — also made it harder to pursue fraud in its aftermath. [many thanks to President George W. Bush for this parting gift to the American people]

This is the crux of the problem with the economic recovery as cited here – there is simply no credible deterrence for bad behavior by financial and corporate elites because they see themselves as above the law – either the strict letter of the law or moral law. For example, here is another example of evasion of the letter of the law on both sides of the Atlantic and here is moral law being spurned by America’s corporate  executive elite who are rewarding themselves at record levels yet again while their employees limp along at 1/5th  to 1/10th of their compensation increases.


Now what does this have to do with Rupert Murdoch and the media scandal in Britain?
Simply this – Prime Minister David Cameron in England yesterday promised the following about the News Corp scandal:

The political pressure intensified as Prime Minister David Cameron, who had originally hesitated, finally moved on Wednesday to back the Opposition move against the bid and to announce details of an inquiry into the hacking scandal and the wider issue of media regulation and media relations with politicians and the police. And he confirmed that the judge in charge of the inquiry will have the power to call any relevant individual to give evidence under oath, whether or not they are U.K. citizens. The Australian-born Murdoch, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is expected to top the list of witnesses invited to attend. Cameron also declared that anyone involved “whether they were directly responsible for the wrongdoing, sanctioned it, or covered it up, however high or low they go must not only be brought to justice they must also have no future role in the running of a media company in our country.”

These are indeed fighting words. But England’s Cameron, which also had its own fierce financial meltdown, has a prosecution batting record against the financial and corporate elites similar to his US Presidential counterpart; roughly 0 on 999. I believe in English Cricket, this might be called a sticky wicket – you simply can’t get the criminal elites out.

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