From the Gutter, Into the Sewer

Intellectuals in Britain have always regarded Rupert Murdoch with suspicion. His rise to prominence on the media scene in the 1980s coincided with a brutal yearlong lockout of newspaper workers, aimed at breaking the traditional hold of their labor unions. In the dominant position he subsequently gained, with four major newspapers and a large stake in television, he began to exercise significant influence over the political scene, and even greater influence on the down-market end of the press.

One anomalous feature of British journalism is its long history of scurrilous, muckraking weekly scandal-sheets, the tabloids or “gutter press,” which since the Victorian era have delighted blue-collar readers with stories of murders and sexual misconduct.

Mr. Murdoch’s achievement was to take the tabloid press from the gutter into the sewer, widening its range from coverage of celebrity scandals to the performance of criminal acts. Some of the latter, such as hacking into the phones of crime victims and their families, were appalling.

There is no redeeming feature in the scandal that has engulfed Mr. Murdoch’s British fief, News International, other than that it has now killed his biggest-selling newspaper, The News of the World. This tabloid made its money by regularly crossing the line of decency; the revelation that it also regularly crossed the line of legality surprises no one, for no one expected any better. What has horrified the British public is the nature of the illegalities. Murdoch journalists not only hacked into the phones of child murder victims and their parents, but of the families of victims of terrorist attacks and of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And in search of sexual and political scandal they hacked into the phones of thousands of others; the London police say they have a list of 4,000 people who might have suffered their attentions.

Discovery of these serious crimes has brought forward a crisis that was already culminating. News International’s bid to take control of the television company British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB, was, in the opinion of many, a step too far, given that, even before the hacking revelations, its influence on politics and public conversation had become deeply corrosive.

The Murdoch media have influenced every election in Britain since the Thatcher era. Both major political parties have courted Mr. Murdoch in hope of his support, and when he gave it, they flourished at the polls. In return, he was allowed to take control of increasing stretches of the media landscape, meanwhile dissuading government from regulation that would hamper his operations. He already owns 39 percent of BSkyB; his reason for wishing to own it all is, as he has publicly indicated, to make it more like its American counterpart, Fox News.

Mr. Murdoch’s influence over successive governments has long been a concern. His hostile attitude toward the European Union and his ingratiating attitude toward China, to name but two examples, have influenced politicians eager to please him. That the former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, was, until the hacking scandal broke, Prime Minister David Cameron’s trusted director of communications, is only the latest instance of this unseemly influence. Mr. Coulson is now under arrest for being part of the hacking crimes. Significantly, when the scandal emerged in 2005 under the Labor government, the police did little to pursue it; only now, under public pressure, have they begun to alert hacking victims to what happened back then.

Tabloid practices have always had a corrupting effect on the public conversation, but they reached new depths under the editorship of The News of the World by Mr. Murdoch’s much-favored deputy, Rebekah Brooks. The cynicism of tabloid technique is well understood: Splash a rumor as news on the front page, then print a one-line retraction on an inside page two weeks later. By then, the victim has been thoroughly damaged, with other papers, and the graffiti wall of blogs and Twitter, transmitting the allegations globally.

Realists accept that scandal and gossip sell, that conflict is entertainment, and that an adversarial stance attracts spectators. But the Murdoch tabloids have championed this approach beyond the breaking point. The soiling of the public debate, and the distorting influence of one foreigner on the political landscape, were barely supportable before the hacking revelations; they are now insupportable.

No doubt over-optimistically, many in Britain hope that the current scandal will at last persuade their government and fellow citizens alike to end Mr. Murdoch’s freedom to poison the well from which they drink. At the very least, they hope that culpable heads will roll. No one believes that senior managers at News International were ignorant of their employees’ crimes. Ms. Brooks claims that she was. If that is true, she failed dramatically in her role as manager; if that is false, she and others are liable for criminal prosecution.

If there proves to be a silver lining to this debacle, it would be the defeat of Mr. Murdoch’s effort to take control of BSkyB, and a diminution of his influence in British affairs. Alas, the anxiety is that the transgressions of News International will prompt a bout of media regulation that will impinge on press freedoms in the wrong way, making it harder to expose the wrongdoings of companies like News International rather than protecting us from them. If this happens, Mr. Murdoch’s degrading influence will have reached well beyond the damage it has already done.

A. C. Grayling, a philosopher and the author, most recently, of The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.

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