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Rupert Murdoch and Freedom of the Press

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A scandal rocking the British Isles is slopping onto American shores.

In its zeal to scoop the news, a British paper within Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire engaged in illegal and immoral activities. Specifically, the News of the World (the News) bribed police officers for confidential information and hacked into private phone messages. The well-founded accusations are currently confined to the UK but American journalists and lawmakers are avidly pursuing the possibility of Murdochian wrongdoing on U.S. soil.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the reasons are largely political. In America, Murdoch is the driving force behind FOX News and other conservative media outlets that many liberals detest. The latest issue of Newsmax magazine features a cover article entitled “Obama hates FOX News” and recent White House email revelations reveal how the Obama administration tried to blackball FOX News, shutting it out of important news stories.

No wonder West Virginia Senator and prominent Democrat Jay Rockefeller publicly called for an official investigation into whether another one of Murdoch’s UK papers, The Sun, had targeted the families of 9/11 victims. His call for investigation was based on a report by The Mirror — a harsh rival of The Sun — which cited unnamed sources who claim an unnamed police officer had allegedly rejected The Sun’s requests for information. The Mirror’s report was sufficiently documented, however, for Rockefeller to publicly claim that, if phone hacking of 9/11 victims or any Americans had occurred, then “the consequences will be severe.”

Without defending the man or the reprehensible actions of the News, it is important to realize that much more than Murdoch’s money or reputation are at stake. Freedom of the press is poised to take a fall as well.

Consider events in the UK. On July 8, perhaps in order to distance himself from the scandal, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an official governmental inquiry into “the culture, the practices, and the ethics of the press” because the press could no longer be trusted to regulate itself.

American free-speech advocate Wendy Kaminer responded, “I cringe….The press is supposed to investigate the government.” Kaminer shared “the widespread desire to see Rupert Murdoch and his minions held accountable for any crimes they have allegedly committed” but cautioned that:

[C]oncerns about the chilling effect of the press inquiry Cameron proposes are … easily dismissed as mere caterwauling about censorship from civil libertarians….This perspective is not entirely unfamiliar or unwelcome in America; it reigns on many of our college and university campuses that severely restrict student speech. So while an American politician might hesitate to issue a forthright call for an inquiry into press ethics and culture, significant segments of the American public might favour one…. If the News of the World phone-hacking scandal is a morality play about renegade journalists, the official response to it is a cautionary tale about subtler forms of press censorship.

The longer the UK pursues its prosecution of the News, the more it appears to be political opportunism and an attempt to control the press rather than a quest for justice. As the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal recently observed,

At least three British investigations into phone-hacking and payments to police and others by the now-shuttered News of the World tabloid [established in 1834] are underway, with 10 arrests so far. News Corp. and its executives have apologized profusely and are cooperating with authorities.

Nevertheless, British authorities are stepping up their efforts, including what looked like a show trial of Murdoch and his top executive Rebekah Brooks. During it all, of course, the authorities complain about a “press gone wild,” a press in need of regulation.

What actually happened in Britain

The bare bones are as follows. In 2003, Andy Coulson became the general editor of the News which, until its recent demise, was the widest selling English language newspaper in the world. Coulson replaced Rebekah Brooks, who moved to edit the popular daily tabloid The Sun — a sister publication of the News. Rumors soon emerged that the News was bending journalistic ethics into the criminal realm. In 2006, a section editor was arrested and later imprisoned for hacking into the phone messages of the Royal family. Coulson disclaimed all knowledge but resigned in 2007. A few months later, he became director of communications for the Conservative Party under David Cameron, now PM of Britain.

In 2009, it emerged that News reporters illegally accessed a wide range of phone messages from 2003 to 2007 with the knowledge of senior staff. Coulson disavowed all knowledge. When a coalition government swept into power in 2010, Coulson assumed leadership of media operations. Soon thereafter, there was a fresh investigation into his possible participation in the News’ illegal activities. No charges were brought. The now-PM Cameron defended Coulson against continuing suspicions.

Then the police reported new evidence of extensive hacking, including prominent politicians (e.g. former Prime Minister Gordon Brown), a police commander and major celebrities; private lawsuits are filed against the News; more editors and journalists are arrested, the News sets up a compensation fund for “justifiable claims.” Hundreds of emails purportedly show that Coulson had authorized illegal payments to police officers; Coulson resigned.

Then two revelations whipped public opinion into a frenzy. First: in September 2002, the remains of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl were found. The murder occurred during Brooks’ editorship of the News, which she used to launch a vigorous campaign to “name and shame” accused pedophiles. The murdered girl’s family phone had been hacked. Second: the family phones of soldiers killed in Afghanistan were hacked as well.

On July 17, Brooks — now CEO of Murdoch’s News International — was arrested for corruption and suspicion of phone hacking. The next day, the Metropolitan Assistant Commissioner resigned rather than face suspension for his connections with the News. Shortly thereafter, a key whistle blower is found dead of apparent suicide; nevertheless, the police are investigating it as a “suspicious death.”

In short, the UK scandal has all the elements of high melodrama and low politics: murdered children, aggrieved celebrities, a violation of the Royal family, a former P.M. accusing a current one of shielding a criminal, suicide, the wronged families of dead soldiers, the fall of mighty, corrupt police commanders…. No wonder Cameron is trying to redeem his reputation by shifting blame on a wholesale basis onto an unregulated press.

Will the scandal ignite in America?

No similar furor exists in the United States, although the suggestion that journalists working for Murdoch hacked the phones of American 9/11 victims and their families has the potential of stirring one up. If the 9/11 connection is not proven, however, authorities may have to proceed on the basis of comparatively trivial offenses. For example, it appears as though the News hacked into actor Jude Law’s phone while Law was in New York’s JFK airport; if so, then, the hacking took place on American soil and under American jurisdiction.

The main impetus for an American prosecution, however, seems to be a wellspring of animosity toward conservative mogul Murdoch. Australian-born Murdoch became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1985, and moved his anchor corporation, News Corp., to America. Through his massive media holdings, Murdoch exerts considerable influence over American politics and culture. It is an influence that many wish to diminish or destroy.

Thus, the FBI is investigating whether News Corp. attempted to hack the phones of 9/11 survivors and families even though no complaints have been received. As Paul Browne, spokesman for the New York Police Department, stated, “Right now we don’t have a basis” to open an investigation because “no one has come forward to us with any information.” Thus, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department is investigating News Corp.

What are the implications for freedom of the press? There are several.

First, even if News Corp. has committed no crime on American soil, Murdoch may well be prosecuted under a 1977 law, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits American companies from bribing officials overseas. The Wall Street Journal observed,

The political mob has been quick to call for a criminal probe into whether News Corp. executives violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act with payments to British security or government officials in return for information used in news stories. Attorney General Eric Holder quickly obliged last week, without so much as a fare-thee-well to the First Amendment.

The intent and historical use of the foreign-bribery law has been to prevent companies from wrongfully procuring business from foreign governments. The Wall Street Journal commented further, “But U.S. officials have been attempting to extend their enforcement [of the Act]…. Applying this standard to British tabloids could turn payments made as part of traditional news-gathering into criminal acts.”

Second, whether or not it has committed a crime in the United States, News Corp. may have to explain to the Federal Communications Commission how its unethical behavior in the UK does not violate the FCC rule requiring those who license TV stations to be of solid moral character. This could be a back door to silencing conservative FOX News.

Third, as in the UK, the American public and the mainstream media seem to be adopting a disdain for the “press culture” expressed by the News and other tabloids. In America, unlike the UK, it is largely the left-leaning media that is calling for a “media prosecutor.” This call is, at the least, naive. British journalist Mick Hume commented on the naivety of suggesting “you can ‘clean up’ and regulate the tabloid press while miraculously leaving ‘good journalism’ untouched. In reality, the more influence that ministers, judges, policemen, commissions and crusaders are able to exercise over the media, the less freedom of expression there is going to be for all. Freedom of the press, like any freedom, is not divisible. You cannot have more controls on the ‘bad’ and let the ‘good’ (whatever that might be) run free….”

The Wall Street Journal offered an example of the indivisibility of press freedom, “The last time the liberal press demanded a media prosecutor, it was to probe the late conservative columnist Robert Novak in pursuit of White House aide Scooter Libby. But the effort soon engulfed a reporter for the New York Times, which had led the posse to hang Novak and his sources. Do our media brethren really want to invite Congress and prosecutors to regulate how journalists gather the news?”

Conclusion

Hacking into private phone messages is not an act of journalism; it is the commission of a crime. In forging a faux link between freedom of the press and crime, authorities have provided themselves with a public justification for cobbling the press. In the UK, authorities in general are annoyed by tabloids that leak political scandals, especially sexual ones. In America, the liberal elite are irate over the right-wing coverage and commentary that has become so popular. Public outrage over the contemptible behavior of the News and a seething rage toward Murdoch are giving authorities on both sides of the Atlantic permission to stifle a free press. Or what is left of one.

Personally, I intend to hold my nose as I stand up on both feet to defend freedom of the press.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).