26 April 2011

Murdoch's mischief ... the excesses of freedom

If you were to suggest that the most powerful man in British political politics today was Prime Minister David Cameron, I would respectfully disagree. I would suggest it is Britain's most powerful press lord, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's News International owns four British newspapers, including the nation's two biggest, News of the World and The Sun, and controls BSkyB, the country's biggest private TV broadcaster.

When Tony Blair first ran for prime minister, one of the first things he did was fly half way around the world to genuflect before Murdoch in his native Australia. In the nine days prior to the Iraq war, Blair consulted with Murdoch on at least three occasions.

And when David Cameron became prime minister, one of the first visitors to Number 10 was of course Rupert Murdoch. At least on this occasion the mountain came to Mohammed. Cameron had already done Murdoch a big favour. In 2007, News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned after one of his reporters and a private investigator went to jail for tapping the phones of the royal family. Six months later Cameron hired Coulson as his communications director (chief spin doctor).

It turns out Coulson wasn't alone. News International has admitted the hacking was widespread, including not only celebrities but also politicians, including Labour MP Tessa Jowell, who was culture secretary in the former Labour government, responsible for decisions that could have affected Murdoch's business interests.

Even the British police may have been subject to Murdoch's influence. Most of the work to expose the hacking has been done by his rivals in the press, particularly the Guardian newspaper. The police stated in 2009 "no further investigation was required" even though it is now obvious it was. Following the revelations of the Guardian, the police have been forced to reactivate the case.

Murdoch's excessive power is not the only problem he presents. He has also systematically lowered journalistic standards. Not content to pollute the press in the UK, he has brought his toxic influence to North America, most notably with Fox News whose standards are not so much in the gutter as in the sewer.

Freedom is essential to democracy, but like all good things there can be too much of it. And when individuals such as Rupert Murdoch are allowed the liberty to dominate news and opinion, and subject elected representatives to their will, freedom of the press has gone too far. It has gone from liberty to license.

Democracy requires a broad and equitable dissemination of news and views. Restricting what is said is dangerous, but restricting who controls the dissemination of what is said is essential. Leaving control in the hands of autocrats such as Murdoch is oligarchy, not democracy. The media—the public forums of the modern state—must answer to the democratic process just as government must. The British need to be reminded of this. But then, perhaps, so do we.

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