News Corp. Doesn't Actually Have Anything to Smile About

Not even Noam Chomsky could've imagined such an implosion of political power in Britain

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Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks probably should not have smiled in the photo above. After their first meeting since the News of the World phone hacking scandal his its tipping point last week, the News Corp. owner and chief executive were heading to dinner at a swank central London hotel, and the two toothy grins seemed smug to the British. "Just what IS there to smile about?" wondered the Daily Mail in their lead story Monday morning. The Mudoch-owned Times toned it down announcing "Police to interview Brooks as Murdoch takes control," but the paper's readers weighed in sourly. "What a sickening photograph," writes Tony Beswick in the comments on The Times article. "As a mere reader for four decades, I am cancelling my subscription and moving to a publication without such a despicable owner and manager. Thank you and goodbye."

Journalists relayed their disdain more academically. Heralded both as a failure of oversight in the British press and a victory of investigative journalism, the News of the World crisis is being called "Murdoch's Watergate" by none other than Carl Bernstein in the latest Newsweek. (We normally think that the Watergate comparison gets thrown around a bit too much, but Bernstein can use it whenever the heck he wants.) Monday morning opinions from across the pond echo the severity of the scandal and bring reproach on how News Corp. so far has handled the fallout.

News Corp.'s "kamikaze crisis management" will go down in history says Alastair Campbell in a Financial Times column. But it's also an opportunity to fix the system:

The latest revelations have forced the police, News International and the government to act. The police will now be more vigorous. News International will continue with their kamikaze crisis management, which one day will be studied as a textbook case of how not to do it. But the most important developments are the prime minister’s dual inquiries into press practices and a new system of regulation. These mean we now have a once in a generation opportunity for a new settlement between politics, the media and the public. Nobody can argue that we have the press we deserve. Pressured by technological change, a dominant strain of Britain’s media has gone into a spiral of decline, in which this scandal is only the most dramatic development.

"It is like a nightmare scripted by Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek" writes Paul Mason, economics editor at the BBC's Newsnight. You probably learned about this theory in college:

Now, there is a school of social theory that has a name for a system in which press barons, police officers and elected politicians operate a mutual back-scratching club: it is termed "the manufacturing of consent".

Pioneered by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, the theory states that essentially the mass media is a propaganda machine; that the advertising model makes large corporate advertisers into "unofficial regulators"; that the media live in fear of politicians; that truly objective journalism is impossible because it is unprofitable (and plagued by "flak" generated within the legal system by resistant corporate power).

At one level, this week's events might be seen as a vindication of the theory: News International has admitted paying police officers; and politicians are admitting they have all played the game of influence ("We've all been in this together" said Cameron, disarmingly). The journalists are baring their breasts and examining their consciences. The whole web of influence has been uncovered.

The worst is still to come. Roy Greenslade quotes The Times's Monday op-ed column--otherwise stranded behind a paywall--and notes how "it indicates the growing split within News International." The Times says:

If there was any hope that shutting down the newspaper would shut down the scandal, that hope has rapidly disappeared. Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, told staff that it would become clear, in time, why it had been necessary to close the News of the World.

When even the company says that there is worse to come we can be assured that the full truth has not come to light yet. It must do.

The past seven days have been the most turbulent for British media since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. At the start of a new week, there are a great many questions still to be answered.

And reform will bear its own challenges says Toby Harnden at The Daily Telegraph. In a column titled "Don't let the politicians turn the British press into an American-style lapdog of the Establishment," Harnden tells us how he really feels:

Yes, there was a failure of self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission. But let’s not forget that it was British journalists, most notably Nick Davies and his team at the Guardian, who brought Murdoch to his knees last week. The tipping point came when the Guardian revealed that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked and the Telegraph reported that the families of war dead were also targeted. Seems to me like some pretty good self-regulation there.

There were failures within journalism, certainly. There was police corruption too. But the willing participants in a morally bankrupt political culture should not be allowed to profit from the demise of the system they helped to create.

Americans may see some consequences too. Remarks Carl Bernstein in Newsweek, "Tabloid journalism--and our tabloid culture--may never be the same." Woodward says we should've seen this coming:

The hacking scandal currently shaking Rupert Murdoch’s empire will surprise only those who have willfully blinded themselves to that empire’s pernicious influence on journalism in the English-speaking world. Too many of us have winked in amusement at the salaciousness without considering the larger corruption of journalism and politics promulgated by Murdoch Culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.