The current allegations about rampant phone hacking and police bribery involving Rupert Murdoch’s media empire that spans four continents are disgraceful and a black eye for journalism. Nevertheless, this scandal must not spur widespread condemnation of the Fourth Estate, especially since a rival London newspaper uncovered the unethical and probably unlawful acts.
The scandal erupted when it was learned that the popular British tabloid, reportedly hacked and deleted voice mails after the murder of a 13-year-old girl in 2002 that stalled a police investigation and gave her family false hope that she was still alive.
In an effort to get other sensational stories, it was discovered that the tabloid’s reporters also hacked the mobile phones of celebrities, soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians, journalists and others.
As a result of the growing scandal, major companies pulled their advertising, so Murdoch’s son James, who ran the newspaper, closed the 168-year old tabloid last week.
In addition to closing the newspaper, Murdoch’s U.S.-based company has lost two senior executives because of the scandal, while several Murdoch employees — mostly former editors and reporters at and Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive for News International, Murdoch’s British newspaper subsidiary — have been arrested. By Monday, two high-profile law enforcement officials — Scotland Yard’s top cop and the assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police — had resigned.
As the scandal escalated, Murdoch and his son appeared before Parliament on Tuesday to presumably answer lots of questions that may affect the future of the media empire.
Over the weekend, Murdoch published an apology in several of his newspapers, in which he wrote that it is “the company’s obligation to provide full cooperation with the police and compensation for those affected.” He also said that he was committed to change and that “the apology for our mistakes and fixing them are only the first steps.”
Before his public contrition, the crisis spread to this side of the Atlantic when allegations surfaced that News Corp reporters wanted to hack cell phones of victims of 9/11 and their families. They supposedly contacted a retired New York City police officer, who refused to cooperate. A few members of Congress immediately called for an F.B.I. investigation into Murdoch’s American media outlets, which include Fox News, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Fox Network of television stations that includes channels 5 and 9 in New York City.
Over the years, Murdoch’s newspapers have sometimes been an embarrassment to the profession. But, now, after decades of drawing attention to dishonorable subjects, the tables have been turned and this could turn out to be bigger and sleazier than anything he’s ever exposed. Call me a snob, but sometimes what passes for reporting in Murdoch’s world lacks comparison with most newspapers, whether in tabloid (like the New York Post) or broadsheet (like The Wall Street Journal) formats. His newspapers have thrived for decades in Britain and Australia with readerships that apparently crave sensational stories about political and royal scandals, celebrity drug use and lurid crimes that aren’t worthy of affiliation with earnest journalism.
Hacking, which is unlawful here and in Britain, by the press cannot be condoned. A certain relationship exists between reporters and government sources, but it is improperly gather facts for a story illegally.
Investigative journalism is a necessary ingredient in a democracy, until it crosses the lines of decency and violates individual privacy.
As much as modern technology has been a boon to our culture, it has also created many opportunities for misconduct, identity theft and hacking being the most common.
While this scandal spotlights the consequences when the boundaries that separate the close relationship between the British government and the press are crossed, new rules should not be instituted that would curtail the freedom of press.
Regardless of the quality of the news reported, Murdoch’s media deserve the same independence to gather information — within the limits of the law — whether in Britain or the U.S. To encumber journalists’ freedom with needless restrictions would not only be a disservice to the value of the reporting, but also to democracy and a free society.