In the UK, the News of the World phone hacking saga continues to snowball, with more revelations promised. There are now over 4,000 targets identified (including royalty, celebrities, politicians (even Prime Minister Brown), police, as well as bereaved relatives of soldiers, homocides and terrorism victim), but the story has grown much larger as it becomes clear that the real issue is the cover up. The phone hacking itself was illegal and shockingly callous, representing an abuse of society's willingness to grant journalistic freedom in the pursuit of truth (compare the Wikileaks saga, where the revelations are of much greater social significance and the methods used by the media apparently legal). But knowing that the practice was indefensible, it is becoming clear that News of the World apparently went to great lengths to prevent the full extent of the abuse from becoming public: making payments to police, seeking to pay for silence from early victims in a way that would remove evidence from police investigations, obstructing those investigations by foot dragging, destroying evidence, making misleading statements under oath and contributing substantially to a culture of fearful self-protection amongst politicians who might speak out about the problem. It is not yet clear how far up the chain of authority blame lies, but it seems fair to say that if some of the people currently denying knowledge of what was going on are speaking the truth, then they have become immensely successful while simultaneously being willfully neglectful and culpably negligent. The relative portions of blame to be assigned to journalists, editors, owners, police, politicians and the reading public are still unclear, but the problems are systemic.
It is, however, hard to deny that a hefty portion of the culture in which such abuses can occur can be traced to a situation in which a single man owns such a large chunk of the media that he can threaten political careers and so create the complicit silence in which police corruption can flourish and his underlings feel untouchable. Numerous politicians, including Cameron himself, have been emboldened by the events of the last week to admit their fear of Murdoch had lead them to silence or a soft tread.
So my hunch is that such systemic wickedness arises not so much due to the press being under-regulated, as from its being too concentrated. The crimes and wrongdoings that occurred at News of the World (and likely at other major papers) occurred not simply through lack of oversight, but because editors felt that they were in certain senses above the law, that public figures who openly questioned their modus operandi could be crushed in the court of public opinion through the very media they would be trying to shine a light upon.
Removing that dangerous sense of invincibility includes diluting the power of any one individual through diversifying media ownership. And this, of course, is where the BSkyB deal is intimately related to the whole scandal. Not only ought it be thrown out in light of the revelations of widespread illegality and contempt of the rule of law operating within News Corp, but the appropriate response ought to include the break-up of Murdoch's existing empire into smaller pieces to prevent the kinds of concentration of power that help to generate such pervasive corruption.
And to make Murdoch and News Corp pay their taxes. They are amongst the worst offenders for tax dodging. Murdoch has personally dodged hundreds of millions of pounds of taxes, possibly billions. Of course, this doesn't stop his papers offering lectures on the need for austerity measures to balance the budget.
What does this have to do with the carbon debate in Australia? While phone hacking is getting some coverage, the antipodean front pages are filled with claim and counterclaim about atmospheric chemistry and tax reform. The link is Rupert.
Murdoch's media empire spans four continents and is, by some margin, the largest news media conglomerate in the world. And from Fox News to the Australian, from The Wall Street Journal to The Daily Telegraph (the Sydney tabloid, not the UK broadsheet), Murdoch publishes a huge share of the denial, false balance and misinformation about climate change to be found in the mainstream media (as documented here, here, here and many other places). This is not to say that he only publishes denial, but many of his organisations are the worst offenders at giving equal weight to the claims of highly reputable scientific institutions and ideological think-tanks with significant funding from major fossil fuel companies. It is clear that this is often deliberate policy in order to sow confusion and thus delay and dilute effective collective action.
Murdoch is not, of course, the only wealthy individual deliberately throwing (bull)dust into the air.
This is part of the insidious effect of hyper-capitalism upon democracy. Rather than generating competition and diversity, the concentration of extreme financial wealth in the hands of the few that defines hyper-capitalism risks enabling the further conformity of politics to the interests of the ultra-wealthy. Media plurality is a necessary condition of a free society. So is the avoidance of extreme inequality.
And a postscript: stories like this give me hope. A young TV reporter with a dream career ahead of him makes an important realisation.
H/T Rod Benson.