The hacking scandal that has consumed British journalism added a few new pages this past week. Increasingly, James Murdoch, the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch seems to be realizing he may be the fall guy.
This week, James resigned his position as the chairman of BSkyB, the satellite network that the Murdochs hoped to gain total control over last year. Once the News of the World scandal broke last year, News Corp, the centerpiece of the Murdochs’ media empire, dropped its plans to buy all shares of BSkyB, although the Murdochs retain controlling interest of the satellite firm. (For more on the News of the World scandal, please see: “The Ethics of Hacking.”) The resignation came just days before public revelations surfaced of more hacking at a Murdoch property, this time at Sky News. James admitted he had known about these new allegations for months but News Corp says there was no connection between his resignation and the charges surfacing. James still retains his senior position at News Corp.
Apparently, the scandal’s momentum is growing and is wrecking the Murdoch family’s carefully constructed plans for furthering its media empire. The nepotism, conflicts of interest, and thinly veiled political motives that have underscored much of the growth of the Murdoch empire may finally have gained so much weight that they could cause the entire construct to implode. Of course, for those who dislike the conservative media that the Murdochs create, that projection may just be wishful thinking. Their global empire may actually be too big to fail, as the current cliché goes. However, more revelations from the variety of British investigations into the use of hacking as a reporting tool (to gain access to voice mail and e-mail) are expected later this month.
The new revelations are interesting as they trot out a now familiar excuse. Without delving too deeply into the details, Sky News says in two cases it granted permission to reporters to hack computers searching for e-mail. In both cases, e-mail was turned over to police who pursued prosecutions fueled in part by the evidence turned up by the Sky News journalists. Sky News says it pursued hacking “in the public interest.”
But such a position puts Sky News above the law. The twisted logic here is that the journalists should be allowed to break the law in pursuit of a greater justice in putting, in this case, pedophiles or insurance scammers behind bars. Even if police use similar tactics, they would need permission of a court. Who appointed the executives of Sky News to a position in society to make these independent judgments?
Also, didn’t Sky News abandon one of the key journalistic tenets of independence by using the information to fuel police investigations, which in turn would produce more sensational news for them to cover?
At the risk of repetition, the internet doesn’t need governments or the media playing Big Brother with the shrinking right to privacy. At least some governments have the weak argument that they were elected by the people to perform these acts for the public good. In the case of the Murdoch empire, it increasingly looks like profit and sensation were the real reasons behind these acts and actions in the public interest are being waved about like a tiny fig leaf now to excuse the wider crimes.
Hacking should not be considered a viable reporting tool. It’s unethical and illegal. End of argument. And those in the media business who have supported it should resign all their positions and leave the industry. That’s not likely in the current scandal, despite James Murdoch’s actions last week, unless the British government steps in forcefully. Given the enormity of the Murdoch empire, look for a solution well short of that despite the radioactive nature of the current scandal.
(The graphic of James Murdoch and the News of the World logo was created by Surian Soosay and is used here with a Creative Commons license via Flickr. To see more on the hacking scandal, please check below for a report from Al Jazeera.)