It was a beautiful moment–Rupert Murdoch, “billionaire tyrant” as The Simpsons once called him, in the middle of being grilled by a House of Commons committee, was suddenly hit by a protester with a shaving foam pie. For many appalled by the phone hacking of murder victims by News International’s News of the World paper and its bribery of police, a pie was the least of what Murdoch deserved for his role in the matter.
As a moment of political theatre, the prank by anarchist Jonny Marbles could have been the moment that Murdoch was revealed to be a mere man, stripped of his power. But the stunt may have backfired. Immediately following the incident, the supposedly “liberal” American news network MSNBC network began empathising with Murdoch, and praising Wendi Deng’s “protection” of her husband from the dire threat of shaving foam.
Wall Street, the ever cynical arbiter of public mood, appears to be betting on Murdoch to escape unscathed–shares in News Corp ceased their 18% plunge to rise 5% by the end of closing on Tuesday. Humiliated publicly, Murdoch becomes not the villain, but a figure of sympathy. As satisfying as that moment of schadenfreude may have been, it illuminates a deeply held cultural bias towards focusing on the individual in cases of systemic failure–a dead girl to rally around, a vicious editor in Rebeckah Brooks, or a rich man inappropriately targeted by a Lefty prankster. Even the story of the Wendi Deng’s response becomes a distraction, a focus, a way to slip away from the more disturbing truth.
Murdoch’s rise to power is the stuff of American “rags to riches” Horatio Alger dreams. Taking over a sole daily newspaper in Adelaide, from his father in 1953, Murdoch rapidly bought out newspapers across his native Australia. In the late sixties, he eyed the UK, taking over The Sun and The News of the World, before moving over to the United States in the seventies and eventually setting up the infamous Fox News Channel in 1996. Fitting then, that along his meteoric rise, the Melbourne born Murdoch shed his Australian citizenship for American–Australians have little interest in the self-made man mythology of the U.S. And it may be well there in the end that Murdoch falls completely from grace, if FBI investigation of claims of hacking 9/11 victims’ phones turns up anything.
But all of this focus on several key individuals ignores the fact that it is a broader problem in the News International empire. Adele Stan at Alternet aptly summarises the Murdoch empire ethos:
- The targeting of Rupert Murdoch’s political enemies
- Lying to public officials in official investigations
- Buying the silence of troublesome employees
- Lack of full disclosure of conflicts of interest
These are not a few “rotten apples,” this is an endemic culture of corruption encompassing media, police and politics. There are an estimated four thousand victims of phone hacking, with only a hundred and seventy notified so far. There is evidence of a distinct bias towards Murdoch papers by public officials in the UK, with David Cameron hiring Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor, and ten out of Scotland Yard’s current team of 45 press officers formerly employed by the News of the World. The phone hacking has already brought about the resignation of Scotland Yard Commissioner Paul Stephenson, and may well bring down more. In Australia, where News Corp owns 70% of print media, there is movement towards an inquiry of the political bias of those papers–News Corp media have changed the results of elections there as well as the UK, and have recently been baying for Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s blood.
And yet for all that power, in the wake of clear evidence of malfeasance, no-one appears willing to admit wrong-doing. The Guardian sarcastically notes the ways in which executives have dodged responsibility:
Time and again people with huge salaries and immense power acknowledge they had responsibility, but are careful not to concede accountability, for fear that it will suggest culpability. Nobody claims they were just following orders because apparently there were no orders and no one to give them. It appears what we assumed were extremely hierarchical organisations such as News International and the Metropolitan police apparently operated like anarchist collectives.
But what would change if we regarded News International as a de-facto criminal conspiracy? These responses would not merely be seen as weaseling out of responsibility, but the plausible deniability we more regularly see from crime bosses. Taken in this light, James Murdoch’s repeated faux-open “I can’t speak to that” sounds less like the confusion of an incompetent manager than the intentional unknowing of a Tony Soprano, insulated from street level crime.
More-over, what would happen if we considered the ways in which the extreme rightwing rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims is implicated in white supremacist violence (for instance on the Arizona border in the United States)? Or the ways in which the Murdoch tabloids whip up public disdain for the unemployed, for individual welfare cheats, in order to justify a systemic pillaging of the welfare state by the ultra-rich ruling class interests of the Murdochs and another? How much of people’s lives have been hacked away as a result?
In the wake of all this–a widespread culture that encompasses executives, editors, journalism, shareholders–to solely hold a small number of people responsible (even those as powerful as Rupert and James Murdoch) will change nothing. There is a reason why media regulation and anti-trust laws exist: to prevent the kind of monopoly that causes whole companies to feel they are above the law. Only by promoting a diverse media with many different viewpoints, and independent public institutions, will there be justice for New International’s victims. It will take more than a pie, or an arrest, to fix the toxic culture that News International media have promoted – to do that you would have to break up the empire Rupert Murdoch built.