By Behrouz Saba
The News of the World, to most people outside the United Kingdom, is an unknown commodity. Some may have heard of it as a “British tabloid” to be dismissed along with its gossip-mongering counterparts. Yet the Sunday weekly, which is slated to have its last press run this weekend, was first published in 1843 and has enjoyed a circulation of 4 million, one of the largest in the U.K., where people still read newspapers and heed their endorsements of political candidates.
Troubles for the paper started when it was revealed that its staff had hacked cellphones to gather first-hand news, and things snowballed with further revelations that bribed police sources had provided the paper with some of the phone numbers. The hacked numbers were first believed to include those of top athletes and other celebrities. Yet additional reports indicated that phone messages of murder and kidnapping victims as well as families of Britain’s fallen soldiers had also been illegally intercepted.
The newspaper not only had cozy relationships with the police, but with 10 Downing Street as well — the infamous residence of the British Prime Minister.
The editor, Andy Coulson, now free on bail after his arrest, who presided over the paper when the hackings occurred, was also the spokesperson for current British Prime Minister David Cameron until earlier this year.
All of this begins to make even more distasteful sense when one considers that the News of the World is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, whose British holdings also include The Sun, The Times, the Sunday Times as well as 40 percent of BskyB, which is the largest provider of satellite pay TV in all of Britain. (Murdoch’s recent bid to gain full ownership of BskyB is now said to be in jeopardy.)
Murdoch and his media organizations have been instrumental in bringing every British prime minister to office since Margaret Thatcher, including Labor Party’s Tony Blair who garnered the garnered the media mogul’s personal backing.
It is no wonder that Murdoch’s employees, seeing Britain’s so many politicians of consequence in their boss’s back pocket, considered themselves above the law and impervious to prosecution. They began to work as part of a corrupt governmental apparatus rather than its media watchdogs.
These days the British media thunder with words of indignation from the very politicians who are so deeply beholden to Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, who is now at the helm of News Corporation.
Cameron, taking “full responsibility” for having employed Coulson, is employing a high-minded rhetoric. “This scandal is not just about some journalists on one newspaper,” he said. “It’s not even just about the press. It’s also about the police. And, yes, it’s also about how politics works and politicians, too.”
James Murdoch addressed the News of the World employees in a message which is posted on the newspaper’s Website. It reads in part, “So, just as I acknowledge we have made mistakes, I hope you and everyone inside and outside the Company will acknowledge that we are doing our utmost to fix them, atone for them, and make sure they never happen again… Having consulted senior colleagues, I have decided that we must take further decisive action with respect to the paper… This Sunday will be the last issue of the News of the World.”
The British have had more than their share of political scandals large and small, with the more sophisticated or cynical among them smiling and shrugging off the current deluge of headlines. The entire affair is certain to blow over, they believe, soon to be replaced by another shocking set of news bulletins.
The events in Britain, however, constitute a clear warning for the United States, where News Corporation owns the Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox News, 20th Century Fox, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and HarperCollins Publishers. Fox News has already had a pronounced impact on coarsening and cheapening the quality of political debate in America, compelling such rivals as CNN and MSNBC to hire loudmouths of their own in a shouting match that benefits no one.
While it is doubtful that News Corporation will wield quite the same power it has in the United Kingdom, it has nevertheless worked its way seamlessly into the American news industry whose numerous corporate affiliations, special-interest debts and political allegiances make it far from the impartial institution as envisioned in the Constitution.
Washington, D.C., as the seat of the federal government’s three branches, the K Street lobbyists and a formidable gathering of representatives from powerful national media, creates an incestuous environment which promotes cozy relationships between jornalists as well as those within the governmental and lobbying organizations they are supposed to watch.
Today, it is all the more important for the reading and viewing public to constitute the ultimate watchdog, particularly in these days of proliferating citizen journalists online. The finely honed messages of political power centers and special interests delivered through the corporate media should be balanced by efforts of smaller organizations as well as individual citizen journalists to seek and publish the truth.