McGuire on Media

Lessons American Journalists can learn from the Murdoch scandals

On Monday night I did this season’s first Must See Monday presentation at The Walter Cronkite School. I spoke on the lessons we can learn from Britain’s Murdoch scandals. There were 200-250 people present, largely Cronkite freshmen and first year grad students. The prepared text is below. Again I admit to occasional ad libs that are not here.

To say this has been a summer of discontent for Rupert Murdoch, News Corp and Britain is like saying it’s hot in Phoenix. Doesn’t cover it.

Scandal, Parliament hearings, Prime Minister under siege, Scotland Yard’s pristine image in tatters. It’s enough to ruin several good afternoon teas.

And yet, there’s a tendency to say that it is all so very British. Their strange legal system, their stratified press with all those steamy tabloids and a constantly embattled government, make it a distinctly British problem in many minds.

It is true that Murdoch has thrived in a place where the First Amendment does not reign supreme, but I am going to argue tonight that the Murdochian scandals hold important lessons for American media.

The first thing we need to do is agree on what we are talking about. I appreciate that not everyone made this case their summer entertainment like I did so I left a fine Chronology from The Week magazine on your chairs. I hope you had a chance to read it.

The following summary is based largely on that material with some opinion I could not resist. The facts and the expression of those facts are the Week’s. The smart-alec comments are mine

In a nutshell, The News of The World, Britain’s most popular Sunday tabloid with 2.6 million circulation was caught hacking into celebrity phones in 2006. Two News of the world employees were arrested and convicted of that phone hacking.

News Corp and Scotland Yard swore that was the extent of the corruption. It wasn’t. For years Murdoch’s papers curried favor with British government officials, arguably corrupted the police and continued hacking into the phones of celebrities, Royals and politicians.

Rupert Murdoch, his family and his executives enjoyed incredible access to the halls of British power.

Two great newspapers brought all this tumbling down. Britain’s Guardian has been an absolute pit bull on this story. In 2009 they reported that News of the World had hacked a large number of phones but also disclosed the parent company, News Corp, had spent $1.6 million to settle such cases.

The case against News Corp might have languished had the New York Times magazine not done a dramatic expose in September of 2010. That investigation propelled the story until it exploded July 4 of this year with the Guardian revelation that News of The World had hacked the phones of a 13-year-old girl named Milly Dowling after she had been kidnapped. The erased messages on Milly’s phone had, for a time led her parents to believe she was alive.

That disclosure blew the story into another dimension. Public outrage, Parliamentary hearings, governmental butt-covering and massive police embarrassment followed. And Murdoch and his family are in a load of legal, financial and ethical trouble–so much trouble News Corp may not survive in its present form.

Now let’s cut back to American Journalism. Any student who has taken my Media Ethics class knows that I believe the economic tsunami that has hit American media is changing ethical behavior. Fewer reporters, more focus on the bottom line no matter what it does to news, and the ubiquity of 24/7 news are creating enormous temptations for shortcuts and excess. Old-guard people, like me, are often accused of overreacting to these ethical transgressions. When we see them as a potentially slippery slope we are told we don’t understand where journalism is heading.

In fact, I think I do and I don’t like it one bloomin” bit!

I am going to discuss five remarkable lessons I think we can glean from the Murdoch scandal and I will talk about them in the context of American Journalism.

Celebrities are not human and have nothing akin to privacy

Bob Wooten of the NY Daily News, a paper seldom viewed as a paragon of journalistic virtue, called News of the World “a British tabloid that has titillated readers for years with tawdry sex, drug and celebrity scandals.”

The hacking of celebrity phones by News of The World is well documented. A BBC article says British police have a list of over 4,000 possible targets. BBC’s list of targets includes stars, politicians and sports figures. Yahoo. Com says Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and George Michael are on that list. Law and actor Hugh Grant have been very vocal about suing.

This was a newspaper that became so obsessed with profiting from the personal peccadilloes and miseries of celebrities, politicians and Royals that they chose to violate the law. Why would that happen?

The answer is simple. Certain people are devalued as not really human. Editors came to believe that the lives of celebrities, politicians, sports celebrities and even Royals are without privacy because of their celebrity. I suspect new of The world editors used that slippery slope rationale that the public “OWNS” celebrities so all is fair. In fact I read many News of the World staffers decided knowing about these famous folks was always in the “public interest.(Kindle Single on the Guardian’s version of the entire affair is the source.)

At one point, the News of the World even got access to the medical records showing then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s son had Cystic Fibrosis and they printed it! Why does anyone need to know anything beyond the fact that the boy is sick? They don’t, unless reporters and editors hold no regard for anything akin to privacy and assume that celebrities and politicians are not really human, “they’re different.”

That brings us to a very tricky point that my Ethics students have heard before: Readers own responsibility for rampant, inhuman, privacy invading celebrity coverage. It’s no accident News of the World was the most popular Sunday paper in Britain. Readers loved all that celebrity gossip and character assassination. Then they were shocked that News of the World was so insensitive as to hack the phone of Milly Dowling. British readers rose up in protest amid their unabashed shock.

C’mon readers, why on earth would that excess surprise you? When you start devaluing human beings just because they are celebrities it becomes very easy to slide down the slippery slope into the ethical muck.

In December of 2009 I complained that the voyeurism around the Tiger Woods case was unseemly and beyond human decency. A former ASU student and prominent local writer, Adam Kress, wrote this articulate comment:. “I agree with you completely on all the arguments about journalistic responsibility and ethics. Those are the standards that guide my career. But what you fail to realize is that this story is not about journalism, it’s about how information is dispersed in 2009 and beyond. The “story” is no longer owned and operated by the mainstream media, it’s owned by the people. The people have made their desires known, and like it or not, it’s not to wait for the AP report. The people do not have a right to know the Tiger story, but they furiously demand it.”

My strong admonition tonight is if we keep demanding to know intimate, invasive details about our celebrities do not be surprised when someone publishes those same intimate details about you!

The philosopher Kant told us ALL human beings are owed dignity. If the American press and public don’t recognize that pretty quickly, the British tabloid sewer is NOT far away.

Unseemly influencing of government

The modus operandi of the Murdochians has been cozy relationships with police and politicians unless and until they needed pushing around.

It’s been reported that Prime Minister Cameron had 26 meetings with top News Corp officials in 15 months. The head of Scotland Yard had 18 in about the same amount of time. In that same, simply remarkable piece on Daily Beast by a writer named Alex Massie, it is alleged the Prime Minister David Cameron was coerced by a Murdoch executive to hire Andy Coulson for a press liaison job because a BBC candidate was not acceptable to News Corp.

Someone will certainly write a book about the unseemly relationships between the Murdoch empire and the Metropolitan Police, or Scotland Yard, but it appears News of the World repeatedly paid off policeman, News Corp showered top police officials with gifts. If you’re not suspicious News Corp  influenced police to downplay the first investigation into phone hacking, you’re a saintly, trusting soul.

The Murdoch tabloids had another shameless way to influence politicians. Bully the hell out of them! The New York Times published a shocking tale of how a Parliament member named Claire Short was horribly bullied when she had the temerity to suggest nude photos of women on page 3 of one of Murdoch’s tabloids was inappropriate. She was subjected to ridicule and name-calling and even a public demonstration that would make a 5th grade bully recoil in horror.

The Times story goes on to say, “It is the fear of incidents like this, along with political necessity, that has long underpinned the uneasy collusion between British politicians and even the lowest-end tabloids here.”

The Times adds, “However much they might deplore tabloid methods and articles…… politicians have often been afraid to say so publicly, for fear of losing the papers’ support or finding themselves the target of their wrath.”

News of the World and the Sun violated ethical standards like a careening drunkard. Unwarranted bribes and payments to police, collusion with government leaders, and malicious use of press power to intimidate political power in addition to the underlying crime of hacking all make News Corp something other than a responsible journalism organization.

A core value of journalism is that news organizations must be Independent. They must be monitors of government not participants. They must hold the powerful accountable to the public not make power accountable to their own personal business machinations. They must not create obvious institutional conflicts of interest.

The press cannot mingle its mission with police and government.

That’s one of the reasons the decline in reportorial resources in American Journalism is so damned dangerous. Increasingly the American press relies on police and government sources for information without challenge.

Some people decry the adversarial relationship between the press and government. Even I once wondered if we sometimes took the adversarial thing too far. Not anymore. The news culture is such now that the only way we can protect the public and keep ourselves out of hopeless conflict is to realize police and government are not our friends!

Buying news

There are very specific accounts of News of the world buying information about the Royal Family and even an account of a reporter trying to buy a confidential directory of Royal family phone numbers.

According to the Guardian police, officers were paid for news and information. It should be obvious by now that News of the World and News Corp knew few ethical boundaries but this issue is especially interesting because buying news has been in the forefront this summer in the United States.

Adweek wrote this recently. “ABC had come under fire amid recent revelations that it was habitually compensating its sources by way of large “licensing fees”—cash payments ostensibly for the use of proprietary photo and video material in its news segments. The network’s news division paid Casey Anthony $200,000 for the use of photos in a story it ran in 2008.”

Several other news outlets have been accused of using these same “licensing fees” to buy news.

There are many people who ask “what’s so wrong with paying for news.” Truth is the problem. Journalists first commitment must be to the truth. If I start putting a bounty on news and information I may buy “marketable falsehoods.” Further problem, especially in a case like the Casey Anthony case is I am often buying a one-sided, self-aggrandizing version of the story that again distances us from truth.

Buying news is fiddling with reality and any time the press fiddles with reality, journalistic values are likely to be violated.

Creating a culture of wrongdoing while maintaining innocence.

One of the incredibly fascinating things about the Murdoch case is the constant protestations of innocence from top executives like Rebekah Wade Brooks, Les Hinton, James Murdoch and even Rupert Murdoch.

I think it stretches credulity to think Brooks didn’t know about the phone hacking but the other three may be telling the truth, kind of.

I want to read a fascinating excerpt from another great story in The Guardian.

“Over the two years since the phone-hacking affair reignited, the consistent response to victims of the illegal practice, and to the journalists, lawyers and politicians who caused trouble, has been to browbeat and threaten them.

The ethic of News International is built around the fear of the newsroom, about which former News of the World reporter and whistleblower Sean Hoare gave pathetic testament to Panorama before he died in his home last week. The bullying by Andy Coulson of a sports reporter named Matt Driscoll, and the menacing visits to his home by his employers after he suffered a mental collapse, led to a reported award of £800,000.

NI executives treat outsiders as badly as they do their own, but the essential point is that lawful and unlawful investigative techniques were adapted to become the company’s chief means of enforcement.”

I urge everyone to seek out this story on the Guardian web site by Henry Porter of The Observer, headlined “Phone hacking scandal has exposed a culture of bullying and intimidation at News International” It will curdle your breakfast milk and it should make it obvious why the Murdochians are being disingenuous at best, and lying at worst when they say they were oblivious to the wrong-doing.

You see culture begets action. If I say I deplore dishonesty but I give big rewards like A’s to plagiarizers and fabricators what will happen? Of course, I will create countless plagiarizers and fabricators. People will watch my actions and not listen to my words.

In the same way at the News of The World, the people who broke big stories seemed to be high-paid stars and everyone knew they got those stories by hacking phones so a culture of phone-hacking would inevitably follow.

That’s why it doesn’t matter a whit if top Murdochian executives knew each individual illegal act their subordinates were committing. It is obvious to all but my five-year-old grandson’s kindergarten class, that the constant brow-beating of staff for salacious scoops by News of the World editors created a culture of wrong-doing.

Just to put a fine point on “should have known,” let’s consider this. Editors Coulson and Brooks claim they didn’t know hacking was going on and yet they were taking credit for big scoops. Any editor who approves controversial scoops and doesn’t know their source is either an abject idiot or lying through their teeth. None of these people seem to be idiots.

I pray to God the American application of this issue is obvious to every Publisher,CEO and editor of American media corporations who continually slash resources at the same time they demand news staffs do more with less.

You just watch the protestations of innocence by executives when ethical shortcuts caused by unbending pressure for more and better stories make scandalous headlines. The executives will point fingers at reporters and editors but all should know the fault will be with the leaders who are creating pressurized newsroom cultures.

Newspapers with courage triumph

For all the scandal, for all the ethical transgressions by Murdoch’s newspaper, for all the abuse of the press privilege, let’s not miss one crucial fact in this story.

Courageous, relentless and principled newspaper coverage exposed this scandal.

If there was such a thing as an International Pulitzer Prize The Guardian would win it. I’d love to see that happen!

The British scandal, like so many scandals before shows public officials, police and corporate moguls will often deny, lie, cover-up, bully, and isolate the courageous newspapers and whistleblowers who stand up to them.

Despite police agencies and Murdoch money creating a whitewash of the first investigation after the first newsbreaks in 2005, The Guardian stayed attentive to the story. Even in the face of brutal lies and possibly defaming statements from News International executives and police, the Guardian hung tough.

Finally in July of 2009, a Guardian story by Nick Davies said James Murdoch had paid more than a million pounds to settle a legal action in an effort to keep criminal activity at the company under wraps.

That story by a determined investigative reporter blew the Murdoch story apart, again kind of. Scotland Yard again said there was nothing new and tried to ignore the investigation. Only determined reporting and a remarkable decision by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian kept the story gasping for air.

Rusbridger and Davies went to the New York Times and tried to sell the story to them. The Times did not rush and seemingly reported very carefully. In September of 2010, the Times Sunday magazine did a strong story that didn’t change much in the British investigation but encouraged other news outlets to join the fray. Our own Dan Gillmor of Cronkite told me, “that story kept the case alive.”

And then Nick Davies revealed the New of The World had hacked into Milly Dowling’s phone. Rusbridger said this in his Amazon Kindle recounting of the Guardian’s role in the story: “Rarely has a single story had such a volcanic effect. Suddenly you couldn’t keep the politicians, journalists, police officers and regulators off the TV screens.”

I don’t know about you but hearing that tale makes me want to stand up and salute the power of a courageous, relentless, duty-bound press.

There are scores of issues resulting from the Murdoch scandal that should trigger hours of ethical debate. We need to have that debate in America before we have our own corrupting scandal.

But the bottom line for me, the cause for exultant celebration, is that the press still works.

If Murdoch’s empire comes tumbling down it will be because of one courageous, diligent British newspaper with a nudge from America’s most important newspaper.

Long live great journalism.