The recent developments regarding News International and the seeming collapse of Murdoch’s imperium have called into question some of the key values of Western liberal society. The complete disregard for common privacy on the part of journalists has shown us the ugly side of the media- and information- governed society in which we live. For in a world where information is of such importance, where we pride ourselves on our liberty of speech and freedom of the press, where are we to draw the line between exposition of truth and crimes against human integrity?
First and foremost, it is hard to argue that taping a conversation simply to copy it down constitutes journalism. To confuse common eavesdropping with the digging and analysing of true journalism would be to conflate the meaning of good police work with common blackmail. This does not, however, help us in distinguishing the line between our individual freedom to do as we wish, and the common interest in exposing the abuse of power. Even Ofcom might be considered as a form of censure, and yet we do all wish to be presented with well-researched and high quality material, since we often simply do not have the time to distinguish the facts from the falsehoods by ourselves.
As the indecencies of News of the World unravel, information flows in about the hacking of phones of the relatives of fallen soldiers, terror and murder victims; thousands of people may have been hacked. It is beyond any doubt that Murdoch was feared by politicians who long have felt the need to please and cajole with the media, in order to secure their own interests. This dirty business, which has so evidently been extended to private matters of a highly vulnerable nature, seems to have finally reached some sort of redemption now it has been brought to public knowledge.
The question remains whether this media nightmare will end here. With Rebekah Brooks admitting to the people of News of the World that she understands why it must be dismantled, as well as suggesting that digging deeper would unearth even more scandal, we need to ask ourselves if the quick dismantling, although necessary at some point, now merely serves to save Murdoch’s worldwide media imperium. There is now talk of releasing a Sunday issue of the Murdoch-owned newspaper The Sun, and the website sunonsunday.co.uk has already been registered. Likewise, as tempting as it is, it is crucial that we do not make this a question only of the current government’s and PM’s obvious failures.
What has become clear these last few weeks is that the atrocious intrusions of privacy have been widespread over a long period of time, indicating the uncomfortable truth that media rules regardless of the incumbent in office. The tragedy of the situation is not that Cameron most probably knew about it, but that he was the rule rather than the exception. As McMullen put it in the now famous conversation recorded by actor Hugh Grant: “He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies“. This world of media and communication has placed a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the people and means through which we receive and interpret information. The recent discussions about changing the arrangement of search results on Google as well as other search engines, in order to reduce the conspicuousness of extremist groups and values, show how easily we are affected by not only the information, but also its formatting and presentation.
Slight misdemeanours in journalism are often justified as being in the service of truth, but how far can we extend this argument and not cause harm? Isn’t it the same sort of generalisation for the greater good that compels extremists to commit violence, and governments to undue acts of coercion? Somewhere in this media circus and muddle of values one key feature seems to have been forgotten: that of the individual, the value that is, or at least should be, the cornerstone of a liberal society. We can only hope that the recent controversies will once again make us aware of its importance in society and remember the respect it is due, regardless of occupation.
In a world where information is power, it is vital never to cease asking oneself whose interest the media is really representing. Is it that of the whole, or sections of the people? Is it that of the politicians? Or is it simply that of itself?