The British phone hacking scandal grows and grows.
Already reaching to the highest levels of British political office, the scale of the controversy can best be gauged by the astonishing decision taken by Rupert Murdoch and his son James to close down the News of the World despite its healthy circulation and advertising revenue. The announcement in separate statements by James Murdoch and by Rebekah Brooks, Chief Executive of News International, Murdoch’s British affiliate company, will mean more than 200 redundancies and the shuttering of a masthead that is 168 years old.
The News of the World is not closing because of the actions of its editors and journalists, as shocking as they have been. The paper is closing because Rupert Murdoch has made a commercial calculation about how best to stem the legal, financial and especially reputational damage accruing from the scandal.
The Murdoch media empire is just as concentrated and powerful in Australia as it is in Britain, and there can be little doubt that Murdoch’s newspapers use their power to gain political advantage for their business interests.
The revelations that have snowballed this week in the UK have been a mighty long time coming. Brooks told a British House of Commons committee hearing in 2003 that the News of the World had paid Metropolitan police officers for information.
The power of the Murdoch newspapers in Britain and Australia has long been legendary, but is often denied by those seeking to defend the organisation and its practices. But this case shows just how influential Murdoch’s henchmen and women can be. The editor at News of the World when the worst of the hacking took place was Brooks herself. Brooks knows Prime Minister David Cameron well; Cameron and his wife even fronted up at the last News International staff party at the exclusive Orangery in Kensington. Also in attendance were James and Rupert Murdoch.
More substantially, Cameron hired another News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, to be his chief press secretary. Coulson was forced to resign earlier this year under pressure from the growing scandal.
No part of the British power elite seems to have emerged unscathed from this affair.
When the Metropolitan Police announced an inquiry into the hacking, they almost immediately closed it, announcing there was nothing to investigate. The man who led that inquiry, assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, now works for News International. News International editors also apparently regularly wined and dined with senior police officials. Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson has told The Guardian that Scotland Yard had persuaded him not to pursue the matter on the grounds that it was an obsession of the [Guardian] news group."
The commercial background to the scandal is Murdoch’s planned takeover of British broadcaster BSkyB, which would give him full financial control of the group. While many have argued this shouldn’t happen for probity reasons, Jeremy Hunt, the minister responsible for the decision, has repeatedly refused to link the two issues — illustrating ominously the amount of power that Murdoch wields.
Former British deputy Prime Minister John Prescott — whose own phone was hacked — was on Lateline this week, telling Australian audiences to "watch [Rupert Murdoch] in Australia as well."
News Limited in Australia has not been free of scandal, even if nothing that has been uncovered in Australia compares to the extent of the British illegality.
The Melbourne Storm salary cap breach, for instance, happened while News Limited’s Australian chief executive John Hartigan was directly in charge. News Limited owns the Melbourne Storm and part-owns the NRL, but Hartigan has resolutely pleaded ignorance of the abuses and seems to have suffered no ill effects. Indeed, Hartigan’s excuses — that the fraud was perpetrated by small number of "rats in the ranks" to the ignorance of senior managers — sound a lot like those trotted out by Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch this week.
The Simon Artz affair at The Australian also has echoes of the British abuses. Artz, a Victorian policeman, leaked details of a counter-terrorism raid to The Australian’s Cameron Stewart in 2009. As a result, Artz and Stewart were investigated by the Office of Police Integrity, and Artz was later charged. The Australian responded with a vicious campaign against the investigation and then against Police Commissioner Simon Overland in particular. In its 2010 Annual Report, the OPI accused The Australian of mounting a "sustained attack" on its activities which "was intended to be intimidatory". The case against the newspaper was eventually settled out of court with much secrecy — again, showing similarities with News’ British tactics — but criminal proceedings against Artz continue.
There is also a significant matter of commercial interest being currently decided by the Gillard government — a $223 million contract for overseas broadcasting on the Australia Television channel, currently carried out by the ABC. Sky News, which is part-owned by Murdoch and pursues a typically News Limited style of political coverage, is also bidding for the tender. As Stephen Mayne pointed out this week, "it takes a certain level of chutzpah to simultaneously run an utterly biased campaign against the Government whilst sticking your hand out for a juicy government contract, but that’s News Ltd for you."
Richard Ackland writes that the British accusations are now so serious, and the police and government response so feeble, that "what is really needed is a judicial inquiry to see the extent to which the body politic has been poisoned by this and, maybe, by other media organisations. It should cover not just the extent of phone hacking but also the relationship between journalists, newspaper executives and politicians and the way important institutions such as the police and the Press Complaints Commission have been suborned."
The implications for Australian media and democracy may not at first blush seem as serious, but in fact they are identical. They are certainly bigger than questions about who gets a big contract for foreign broadcasting. At stake is nothing less than the democratic trust essential for ordinary citizens to believe and engage with news as it is reported.
News Limited here in Australia has long been understood to have a culture inimical to everyday understandings of democratic beliefs or professional ethics. The toxic culture of News Limited is alive and well in this country, much for the worse of our democracy.
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