Sunday, July 17, 2011

Power tends to corrupt...

...the first part of Lord Acton's often repeated saying which he made back in the eighteen eighties.

It's very relevant to the momentous events going on in the UK surrounding Rupert Murdoch's brand of 'journalism' I would say.

Another saying that springs to mind is 'one law for the rich, one for the poor', but this time it's happening in reverse from the usual meaning.

The hypocrisy of the general public is never more evident than in the Murdoch saga.

He's made his squillons and gained his power & influence by feeding the public obsession with gossip and personal details about people's private lives, the more dirt-raking the better. His papers are as downmarket as you can get, with even the once internationally respected The Times and Sunday Times going on a rapid downward spiral when he took them over.

The public's insatiable appetite for dross gave tabloid rags like The Sun and the News of the World the highest readership in the UK. In Australia it's the same with his tabloids versus the broadsheets. Friends tell me it's the same in India, where he's also building an extension of his empire.

Then the hypocrisy. As long as the gossip and lurid details were about royalty, footballers, politicians and 'celebrities' the illegal means of obtaining the information were not questioned.

But when exactly the same methods were used against ordinary people - an uprising.

It's not the unprofessional, immoral, illegal actions which have caused such outrage. That's been caused by who the victims are this time.

They won't of course, but people should take a long hard look at themselves for accepting illegal practices when they were used against well-known people. That's encouraged the practitioners to see their illegal, immoral actions as normal practice, happily accepted by the public.

Then there's the side to this saga that will be society changing.

When our Rupert bought into the UK's newspaper world he was a breath of fresh air.  He challenged the establishment, as very few did in those days, and broke the print unions which were killing the hand that fed them. (I had personal experience of them when I worked in London ad agencies).

But as his influence with the public - read voters - increased so did his interference in politics. Now there is evidence not only of his power to influence the highest levels of government but of his organisation's illegal activity in phone hacking, fraudulently obtaining personal information ('blagging') and bribery of police.

The mutual back-scratching of News Corp., politicians and the police isn't new but it's reached new depths.

No-one knows how much more there is to discover. Was it confined to the now thankfully defunct News of the World? (Always a dreadful example of tabloid 'journalism'). Was it even confined to the UK? The FBI in the US is looking into alleged breaches of US law. Here in Australia, where his empire began and where he owns nearly two thirds of our big city newspapers, MPs are calling for an inquiry into media regulation.

This time News Corp won't be able to sweep it under the carpet as they did earlier, sacrificing a couple of, albiet guilty, fall guys. I've always maintained that the culture of an organisation is set at the very top. Underlings do what they believe the boss will be happy with, often what the boss indicates he'll be happy with.

To make matter worse, far from making a couple of minor mistakes in handling the crisis, as Murdoch told the (his) Wall Street Journal they'd done, he's made uncharacteristically massive errors. I suspect the years of increasing power and influence have made him overconfident about what he can get away with. But arrogance and treating people with disdain aren't cutting it any more.

It needed an immediate admission that the practices were totally unacceptable. An immediate apology and promise that he was on his way to sort it out and hold those responsible, right to the top, to account. An urgent personal apology to the family of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler, the hacking of whose phone started the public outrage.

He should not have refused to attend the parliamentary hearing - a bad decision since reversed only as he realised the severity of the storm and threats of a summons to appear were made.

He should have immediately dropped his bid to buy the whole of BSkyB, 'pending the outcome of the current investigations'. Instead he tried to remove it from the political arena by having it referred to the competion watchdog, then had to withdraw the bid anyway. Calls are now being made to consider whether News should be allowed to retain its existing 39% holding.

All in all, mistake piled on mistake. As I said, out of character and massively damaging to the empire. Perhaps even fatal to it in its present form.

It will certainly lead in the UK to a formal distancing between media proprietors and politicians and between the media and police. Perhaps a new media regulator, maybe no more self regulation. More attention will be paid to the meaning of a 'fit and proper' person in relation to media owners. Quite possibly stronger regulations about the percentage of media one person can control.

Very senior people are going to be held responsible for their actions and lose their jobs - instead of the usual platitude of  'I take full responsibility' with absolutely nothing happening thereafter.

And much more transparency all round.

The results of all this may well be felt in other countries, including Australia, which could also end up with changes relating to media.

It's a big, big story which will run for a while yet, with more sensational revelations to come I'm sure.

No comments: