Rupert Murdoch’s current problems in the UK and - through a chain of chess piece executives who work for him on both sides of the Atlantic - the United States, point out just how tenuous and ephemeral our notions of a vigorous and healthy free press have become for both Americans and our British cousins.
It isn’t that the misdeeds of News Corporation companies, hacking into the private communications of subjects it considers newsworthy – like the royals, murder victims, politicians, sports celebrities, and the like – are not something that is not of major concern to us. They are, as they surely should be.
The scope and pervasiveness of Murdoch & Co.’s tactics in trying to generate “news” and their illegal efforts to cover them up by bribery and deception will be uncovered in days and weeks ahead, for they have rattled the cages of some very important people on both sides of the pond. And when you push those kinds of buttons, even if you’re Murdoch, you can expect a significant amount of pushback. The degree to which Murdoch’s willingness to act in flagrant disregard for ethical behavior, from his telephone hacking to his manufacturing of “facts” reflect his apparent assumption that there is nothing on earth which can rein him in. This should be an alarm to the citizens and politicians of both nations.
There is a larger point though, a “teachable moment, as they say, and it is this: Lax oversight on the part of regulatory agencies in both America and the UK, designed to prevent monopolies of information dispersal have severely restricted a free exchange of information and opinion in the mass media.
News Corporation's overstepping of the law currently being investigated was not done by a small-town media outlet. They were done by a multinational, multi-media company which has evolved from a small Australian daily newspaper to the 4th largest communications titan on the planet. News Corporation has its fingers in every form of information outlet, including book publishing, magazines, cable and satellite TV, newspapers, movies, sports, and broadcast. It owns local television stations and newspapers and dominates the entire media activities in some very important markets and segments. It’s most recent acquisition, Dow Jones & Co. and its flagship Wall St. Journal, makes News Corporation the major player in business information. His far right-wing Fox News Channel is the most viewed cable news (if it can be called such!) channel in the country. His local television broadcast stations alone reach 40% of the American population.
If the giant News Corporation pyramid was inverted, the flow of financial and political juice would flow to just one man, Rupert Murdoch, who has claimed for years that he is interested in being nothing more than a businessman but whose actions belie that claim. Over and over again, he has shown that he intends to become the ultimate kingmaker in the affairs of the English speaking world and beyond. His top employees are some of the most nefarious and politically savvy people found anywhere and it is their job to shape governments in Murdoch’s personal image.
Perhaps now, finally, the time has come for breaking up this enormous trust, just as we did to Standard Oil a hundred years ago. Democracies can only thrive on ideas freely and broadly expressed. When companies such as News Corporation can command the eyes and ears of a section of the electorate large enough to unduly influence the outcome of elections, as it did in the case of David Cameron in the UK and George W. Bush here in the States, the underpinnings of self-government are strained to the breaking point.
We have not seen such an accumulation of media since the days of the Hearst empire a hundred years ago. Indeed, the growth and complexity of how information gets gathered and disbursed, along with recent Supreme Court pronouncements giving citizenship to corporations, makes News Corporation orders of magnitude more dangerous than Mr. Hearst ever was. Murdoch not only creates news, he controls how it's doled out.
Politicians unwilling to take a hard look at how news is disseminated in this country will ultimately lose their own ability to act on behalf their constituents’ interests regardless of whether they are liberals or conservatives, for Murdoch can mobilize his enormous assets to take down just about anyone who doesn’t do his bidding. We have reached a near-critical mass, in which one man’s power may be greater than the American government’s ability to function in anyway resembling a democracy.