Greg Garrett: Media, Morality and Rupert Murdoch

One of the most powerful men in the world, international media baron and naturalized American citizen Rupert Murdoch, has come to England this week to try and defuse a huge political and media scandal that has blown up into the biggest news in Britain just now-bigger even than Harry Potter! The "phone hacking" reported to have been carried out by Murdoch journalists is everywhere-on television, on radio, and in every newspaper, although of course the papers owned by Rupert Murdoch-the Sun, the venerable London Times, the Sunday Times, and until this past Sunday, Britain's most-purchased Sunday paper, the 168-year-old News of the World-have a very different slant on things.

Last Sunday was the final issue of News of the World, which stands accused of illegally hacking into the voicemails of thousands of cell phones, accessing the messages of war heroes, murder victims, entertainers and celebrities, and royals and high-ranking politicians. This scandal (and all its threads, as other Murdoch papers are now accused of illegally obtaining information for stories) has embroiled Mr. Murdoch and his News International (News Corp in the States) in a tempest that has cost them customers, confidence, and influence, and so far, has lost them seven billion dollars in stock value as, according to Bloomberg, who know more about such things than I do: "Investors are concerned about the scandal's effect on other News Corp. holdings, which include the Fox TV networks and film studios, the Wall Street Journal and three other newspapers in the U.K."

This seems to be much more than partisan bickering or a tempest in a teapot, because the scandal is ultimately about much more than whether Murdoch's journalists broke the law and violated people's privacy. As Steve Richards writes in The Independent, which is not affiliated with any political party or stance, "This feels big and significant, a crisis which might lead to profound and positive changes in the relationship between media and politics." It might also be a game changer in the States, where angry News Corp shareholders decry either the business practices or the financial losses, and there is talk of prosecuting News Corp under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Outrage in the U.K. is coming from all directions. In some cases, it has to do with the violation of privacy, in others, with allegations that News of the World paid off police to keep things quiet, and reports that they willingly paid huge settlements to victims to keep things hushed up. More important, perhaps, is the rising indignation against Murdoch and his media empire. Over the past four decades, they have made and broken prime ministers, shaped pro-business policies that have directly benefited News International, and contributed to a tabloid culture in which nothing is sacred and nobody is safe. But all that seems to have changed. The man whom British politicians once could not ignore is now under attack from all parties, and the charge is led by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, David Miliband, who a week ago was reeling and widely considered to be ineffectual.

Finally, the Church of England weighed in, as it ought, and made noise threatening to pull out its substantial investment in News International-some nine million pounds worth. The church's ethical investment advisory group wrote to News International, demanding immediate action to make amends for what they called this "utterly reprehensible and unethical" behavior.

In slightly less stirring fashion, the church's bean counters decided to hold pat their investment in hopes that Mr. Murdoch will divest himself of his newspapers and of his stake in the TV satellite company (and chief BBC rival) BSkyB that he is currently applying to purchase entirely. If this happens, they reason, not only will the cash-strapped Church not lose a ton of money (presumably), but the moral impetus for divesting will disappear.

So what would fill a national church-and a nation-with such disgust that it would decide it shouldn't be in any way linked to a profitable corporation?

I find several things operating. First, on a micro level, this is a human rights issue, and thus very much a Christian area of interest. All human beings are made in the image of God, and partake of certain human rights. Our founders in America spoke of these inalienable rights in terms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and later constitutional amendments spoke of other rights as well. In Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a right to privacy in the 14th Amendment, and the United Nations has likewise said that privacy is one of our most important human rights, especially in the digital age.

We accept some violations of our privacy in exchange for security, or the promise of it. Here in Britain, for example, citizens are watched by closed circuit TV to a degree Americans would find positively creepy, while American civil rights activists continue to be creeped out by the provisions of the PATRIOT Act which permit legal surveillance of our phones and other means of communication. But the actions taken by these News of the World reporters who hacked phones in search of a story clearly violated the privacy of all those affected. It is, simply, unethical, immoral, and wrong.

A second manifestation of the human rights concern may be found on the macro level of the story, and has to do with the incredible power wielded by Mr. Murdoch and his papers over democratic societies. In a full page editorial in Sunday's Observer, the paper called for "Murdoch's malign influence to die with the News of the World." This editorial argues-and other papers likewise are saying-that for decades, Mr. Murdoch's inordinate influence on politics, in business, and in the media has tainted everything it touched. Marina Hyde, in last Friday's Guardian, called Mr. Murdoch "Britain's most obscenely powerful unelected foreign tax exile," and the consensus is that the concentration of so much media power in the hands of one person is a bad thing.

This is not, theologically or ethically, about Mr. Murdoch's success in business, which is another issue entirely. When one person-or a handful of them-hold so much power that their voices matter more than hundreds, thousands, or millions of other voices, then again, the right of each individual to be heard, respected, and cared for can be and often is overrun. Mr. Murdoch is the most powerful media figure in Britain, as he is, perhaps, in the States, Australia, and other countries as well; as the Christian Science Monitor notes, News Corp is second only to the Walt Disney corporation in global revenue. This scandal comes at a time when he is angling to control more of the media while arguing against the "tyranny" of the BBC, which provides, in this writer's opinion, some of the best news coverage and entertainment programming on the planet.

In a press conference on the matter, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke the other day about "a black cloud hovering over press, parliament, and police," a cozy relationship between press and politicians that has to change. Perhaps this is Mister Cameron's Nixon goes to China moment, for the Prime Minister has been, like many British politicians, a frequenter of Murdock parties, and he is, moreover, a close friend to Rebekah Brooks, former newspaper editor, and now head of Murdoch's News International in Britain. Over Christmas, he was a guest in her home.

I know it is a fallen world, but citizens nonetheless expect their governments to operate ethically, legally, and without undue influence. But in Britain it appears as though employees and executives of News International have suborned the justice system, and Parliament and Prime Ministers have been forced to constantly check their media rear view mirrors for Mr. Murdoch. Pro-business policies that directly benefited Mr. Murdoch and his holdings-even as they were detrimental to others, maybe even to a vast majority of Britons-have been advanced decade by decade, and many disturbing questions about this influence on government linger.

Here in Hawarden, Wales, where I have spent the last five weeks at the Gladstone Library, the proprietors of the small post office that is my village's newsstand tell me that villagers are canceling their subscriptions to the Murdoch-owned Times (once one of the world's most-reputable papers, but smeared by this scandal), often for the progressive Guardian, which broke many of these phone-hacking stories and continued to pester the government to take some sort of action. The Telegraph reports that this trend of buyers abandoning the Times in protest of News International's actions, seems to be happening across the country. It seems that Britons who once delighted in titillating stories now are discovering they don't so much like the methods employed to break them.

So a final thing for us to consider. In a scandal so far reaching, there is plenty of blame to go around. How much belongs to Mr. Murdoch, his executives, and his editors? How much should be attributed to British politicians and celebrities who kowtowed to the Murdoch media?

And to what degree are we, the general populace, to blame for always wanting the inside story, the unknown detail, the hidden secrets?

[Originally posted 7/13/11 on Greg Garrett's blog on . Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the  _ Progressive Christian portal _.]

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