Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rupert's Knickers in a Twist...

 **This post has been updated to reflect changes in this ongoing story**

Rupert Murdoch (Wikipedia)
By now you have certainly heard about the phone-hacking scandal in Great Britain.  To bring you up to speed, reporters for the News of the World, which by Sunday evening was defunct, had hacked numerous celebrities, royals and now, it seems, victims of crimes, terrorism and war.  It would be these latest revelations that would rock Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp, which owns the News and lead to the paper's demise.

News Corp is better known in the United States for owning Fox News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal.  It also owns the Fox Television network and 20th Century Fox, the Hollywood Studio.  So far, none of the allegations are believed to have hopped across the pond to American media, although The News is suspected of trying to hack 9/11 victim.  This whole things remains an egregious example of how Britain's famous free-wheeling ethics-eschewing tabloid press does its dirt.   Still what has spun the story out of control is how much it has also rocked 10 Downing Street, the political home and office of David Cameron, elected the country's first Conservative Party Prime Minister last year after fourteen years of Labour government.  Murdoch's various holdings in England, which include the Sun and the Times of London, the storied paper from which so many American publications get its name, supported Cameron's bid to be Prime Minister.

PM David Cameron (The Guardian)
All the trouble seemed to bubble up several years ago when the royals noticed that details of an injury Prince William suffered became public.  An investigation discovered that cell phones had been hacked and it was found that reporters for the News were involved.  Dismissed at the time as an isolated incident, the scandal did not got very far, although Andy Coulson, the paper's editor resigned.  Coulson would then serve as communications chief for the Conservative Party and later 10 Downing Street after Cameron's victory.  He resigned amidst renewed furor over the story in January.

The gas began to hit the fire when the Guardian, a paper that openly detests the News and Murdoch generally, found evidence of payoffs.  This is in turn led to a larger analysis of the situation in the New York Times Magazine.  This in turn, led to charges by Murdoch and his company that both the Guardian and the New York Times were childishly sniping at a rival.  Earlier in 2010 before the bulk of the New York Times coverage, the Wall Street Journal had announced it had intended to take on the Times for dominance as the Nation/New York's paper of record.  Although the coverage of the Journal's British sister publication was called personal, the Times' ombudsman spoke to two media critics who found the stories sound.  Time would later bear out their coverage.

What ultimately made the entire situation odious was the revelation that phone hacking was not limited to celebrities like Hugh Grant and the heir to the throne.  Early this week, it was revealed that the phone of a murdered teenager had been hacked, frustrating a police investigation and giving her parent false hope that she remained alive (the hackers had played with her voice messages and allowed new ones to be left after her inbox was originally full).  To make matters worse it turned out that families of victims of London's Subway bombing as well the family of deceased British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were likewise hacked.  The bombing victims' names were believed to have been obtained by bribing police in Scotland Yard.

The political closeness between the press and British politics is not new.  Indeed, some British media observers doubt that Murdoch's papers' circulation notwithstanding, actually does not decide elections.  He just throws the support behind whomever he deems is likely to win.  Less William Randolph Hearst and more "There go my people, I must learn where they are going so I may lead them."  Indeed, Murdoch did this when it became clear Labour would reclaim the premiership after eighteen years of conservative government and continued to be chummy with Tony Blair and later Gordon Brown until several months before last year's election.

So you may be asking at this point, why are you writing about this?  If I already follow such things, you are just rehashing.  Well, first of all it is highlights potential corruption within News Corp, the News of the World's parent company, which also owns Fox News in the United States.  It is unlikely that similar hacking has happened here, although we do not know.  However, with Rupert Murdoch continuing to stand by the woman that runs his UK newspapers has brought many to question his judgment.  His son and heir apparent at News Corp faces more and more question about his choices as the scandal caught fire.  Finally, there is a question whether or not American law has been broken because it is a crime for American corporations (which News Corp is) to bribe foreign officials, which would include Scotland Yard. 

Parliament Square, London (Wikipedia)
It also offers a too-good to pass up opportunity to observe and understand foreign politics.  Unlike our system, the government is almost entirely controlled by the legislature, that is Parliament.  The Queen's power is entirely ceremonial, or more accurately, she does not exercise whatever power she does have.  Executive power is exercised through the ministers who are members of Parliament.  Typically a government is formed by whomever has the largest bloc in Parliament.  However, Cameron's Conservatives do not control an absolute majority.

It remains possible to operate without a majority.  Canada's Conservative party did this for years until this most recent election where they won a majority.  However, such a majority is terribly unstable and vulnerable to votes of no confidence, which would very likely cause early elections.  In Parliamentary systems, members' terms have a maximum length, but can in theory last for a very short period of time.  Rather than take that risk, Cameron established a coalition government with the Center-Left Liberal Democrat Party.  Incidentally, that party had a record of Murdoch-bashing for years.  Israel, by comparison, has only once not had a coalition government (although there are more complicated factors at play) and the Knesset rarely ever reaches its statutory expiration date that brings on new elections.

Ed Miliband (Wikipedi)
Right now, Labour leader Ed Miliband is planning to push a vote during an Opposition Day on Wednesday that would all, but force the Cameron government to hold off on approving Murdoch's full acquisition of a giant British Satellite Television firm.  The Cameron government has just agreed to support the motion, itself.  Ultimately, it might derail the deal entirely, although that is not the focus of Miliband's motion directly.  Normally such a thing would fall along party lines, but the Liberal Dems announced support and their portion of the government is large enough to pass the motion if they vote in lock-step with the opposition Labour party.  With Cameron already reeling over missteps and terribly unpopular austerity measures (we're talking to you, Pres. Obama!), a major vote exposing his party's coziness with Murdoch, Labour's similar transgressions notwithstanding, could cause Cameron's government to fall ahead of schedule.  If nothing else, it could leave him weak and unable to function as it does not dare the embarrassment of losing the vote.

As for News Corp, depending on how the scandal shakes out, it could damage, although probably not permanently, the company's financial situation.  Not unlike the boycotts of Glenn Beck's show, the News of the World was partially felled by advertiser pullouts following revelation of the hacks on the phones of crime and terrorism victims.  The lawsuits in Great Britain will harm the company's bottom line.  Because the American public does not seem particularly interested in any deeper media analysis than the "Liberal Media" and "right-wing radio/Fox News," although the latter is more accurate, the former often acts as a strawman to the media's real problems.  So seeing the parallels to Fox News's nonsense to the tactics of the News of the World is unlikely to catch fire here.  Still, it remains an indelible black eye for a company that control such a substantial portion of the media.

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