Murdoch and Brooks: Paying the price for the greater good

By James M. Dorsey


Irrespective of what one thinks of Rupert Murdoch and his particular style of journalism, fact of the matter is that there would likely be fewer quality newspapers around if he had not bought them as building blocks for his media empire.

It would be unfair not to recognize that and to simply write Mr. Murdoch off as evil incarnated and sweep under the carpet the contribution he has made to maintaining independent media and printed press in particular.
The problem is that in the final analysis, the damage to the media caused by the phone hacking scandal and his failure to maintain Chinese walls between journalism and his business interests is likely to balance if not outweigh the contributions he made.

Adding fuel to the fire, Mr. Murdoch failed to put on display the vision one should expect from a man who has built a multi-billion dollar empire in confronting head on the phone hacking scandal when it erupted, not just now but some five years ago when it first emerged.

Mr. Murdoch could have spared himself, the public and the media significant grief had he done just that.

This week’s resignations of two of his senior executives was long overdue and Sunday’s arrest of Rebekah Brooks barely a day after she resigned as News International Ltd chief executive officer drives the point home.

If the media is the fourth estate that holds public institutions and officials accountable, abiding by the law and ethical standards in reporting is a sine qua non.

It doesn’t really matter whether Ms. Brooks had knowledge of the phone hacking or not. It happened on her watch. It was her responsibility to ensure that reporters operated in an environment that upholds standards of journalism and that editors queried their reporters on their sourcing of stories instead of being accomplices in unethical behavior and transgressions of the law.

The very basic principle of a free press that holds others accountable is undermined by illicit relationships with authorities like the police and unethical practices like phone hacking.

In allowing such practices to happen Mr. Murdoch and Ms. Brooks have undermined public trust and made it more difficult for the media which often takes the blame for being the messenger of bad tidings to maintain its role as a public record that holds a mirror up to authority.

That role has become all the more difficult in a time of economic crisis that has been particularly harsh to the media and far-reaching technological innovation that has radically changed the playing field.

The very essence of the media’s role as the fourth estate is at stake.

The late Washington Post columnist David Broder warned some two decades ago that cozy relationships between journalists and their sources and journalists becoming part of the establishment threatens the very essence of hard-hitting investigative reporting and muckraking. So do unethical practices and violations of the law.

Ms. Brooks deservedly will pay a price irrespective of whether she is charged or not. With calls for the breakup of Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp gaining momentum, Mr. Murdoch could end up paying an even steeper price.

If that is what it takes to repair the damage and get the discussion on the future of the media back on track, so be it.


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