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Rupert Murdoch and the phone-hacking scandal:
On the scandalous achievements of the mass media in a democracy

[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-11, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

The motherland of democracy is proud of its independent media: “British journalism has been — and is — some of the best in the world” (Ed Miliband, Labour Party leader, speaking for all in the New Statesman, July 8, 2011). Now one branch of this free press, headed up by the left-liberal Guardian and public broadcaster BBC, has revealed that another branch, a paper owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, has broken the law. Some reporters at News of the World (NoW), the Sunday tabloid owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation, obtained their stories by intercepting mobile phones and bribing policemen. For months on end, an excited public has indulged itself in exposed details of the ‘phone-hacking scandal,’ the deceptive manufacturing of opinion, and the intimate relationship between Murdoch’s media empire and British administrations. It has even been suggested that as a result of this intimacy, the decisions made by the government over four decades under Thatcher, Blair, or Cameron have been determined by a ‘media mogul.’ Right.

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The scandal started off in the kind of journalism that fills the tabloids: A young girl was kidnapped — and News of the World invited its readers to share in its speculations about whether the victim was still alive, in the agony of her distressed parents, and in the search for the criminal kidnappers. And it did so as authentically as possible: in their search for first-hand information, Murdoch’s reporters intercepted the kidnapped girl’s voicemail. That has become the focus of a great deal of agitation in the realm, thanks to which the achievements of the popular press in educating the people with its ‘sensational journalism’ have sunk into oblivion.

The press opened a window to its readers into private tragedies happening to people around them. Millions of Brits having wholly different concerns of their own could share vicariously the distress of the young victim’s worried parents. The readers learned about the hopes of the relatives, but also about their despair — and could enjoy the feeling of being part of it all. That is the journalistic principle, in this case and all others, with which this press fills its colorful pages and forms public opinion in Britain and elsewhere: the media involves them in an issue of general interest, apart from everything that readers and viewers are and do, which has nothing to do with any real interest (and doesn’t have to either), neither with the individual interests of the diverse readers nor with any real common feature they really might have. The news coverage makes any given incident an interesting one — for the span of a day or, if it can be exploited enough, for a week. The attention of the readers is thus occupied and steered towards an affair that has been made public and important. And this is also the first and primary achievement of this type of coverage: it generates community beyond any real interests, open for any topic and any affair, thus creating what in a democracy is respectfully called the public sphere. Papers that dedicate themselves to this task in a way that relates to the “common man” present the world as a somewhat chaotic hodgepodge of events that have one common denominator, namely, that newspapers, radio, television and the internet cover them; everyone of sound mind has an opinion about them. What emerges in the process of forming opinion is a public awareness, the daily renewed basis for that peculiar thing called zeitgeist. Each individual must form his own private opinion, of course. But the knowledge and views of the world that form inside private minds are not left to chance: the opinion makers in the media make this the cause of their profession. They present the topic du jour to their audience in such a way that it becomes everybody’s concern. Their readers are presented a close-up view in text and photo of major catastrophic events that deserve attention simply on account of their spectacular size. As vividly as possible, the audience is drawn into unheard-of incidents from the microcosm of everyday life, into deeds great and infamous, into brilliant feats and failures occurring near at home or among foreign ethnicities. The readers are thus invited to empathize with polar bear families and their tragedies, as well as with the joy of winning the lottery or giving birth to quintuplets — that is how they, in their morally sound emotional lives, become involved in affairs that don’t involve them in any real way. They are mentally drawn into a world which is none of their business but which thereby becomes their world. By arranging people’s emotions in such a purposeful fashion, this segment of the media unites its readers in a great emotional community of people who have nothing in common apart from their moral expertise, which informs them about what is appropriate and what isn’t, and which they use, each for himself and all together, to burrow into the topic they have been presented.

It is not seldom that, along with the event that fills the pages, they are handed guidelines on where and how to allocate their sympathy, who they definitely should be for or against in the case of a “scandal” and whose grief they should share. Sometimes these papers explicitly incite the ethical collective of decent citizens with “campaigns”; other times these are not necessary — well-informed citizens don’t always need to be encouraged to beleaguer the home of an evildoer who has just been released from jail. The popular press — BILD in Germany, the Murdoch press in England — creates a sense of belonging to a community from below, which virtually brings to life the abstract national “we” that everybody identifies with anyway. With such expert guidance, citizens can live out their identity as a collective united in morality and mores; they can make all the troubles and sorrows that have been turned into a public affair their own concern, along with the success stories of ordinary citizens and celebrities; and they can train their judgment with regard to what is proper and decent in their community and what isn’t. In this way, the masses become experts about everything and everybody; they can add their two cents on Prince William’s knee, the victim’s anguish, the perpetrator’s malice, the cup size of the Page Three Girl. But it is not only celebrities and sex & crime that are presented as objects of private interest: the larger national issues are also given a human face; all things political are translated into private affairs that bring people closer together. The readers who, as voters, are to surrender power to the politicians get to know them as one of their own, with strong leadership qualities or weaknesses of character, with the same troubles as you and me, but who also have to carry the personal burden of responsibility for the future of the country. The Sun — like News of the World, the Daily Mail or Daily Mirror — gives a graphic account of the war in Afghanistan, where “our heroes” defuse mines with sweat on their brows. The sinking of an enemy cruiser in the Falkland war is celebrated with the legendary headline “Gotcha,” just as if it was the most natural feeling, as is one of those rare football victories over the “Krauts”; and the reader is invited to share in how a vacationing David Cameron gets annoyed at a rude Tuscan waitress who has kept him waiting. No wonder, says the newspaper-reading Brit, that Italy has lost its credit not only with Cameron, but with the financial markets, too.

The world as presented in the popular press may appear entirely upside-down, where the important things are unimportant and the unimportant things important — but the clutter of news and stories has the above-mentioned common denominator: the readership, by concerning itself with everything and everybody, becomes an ethical community, a people united in morality. It is this achievement that all other sectors of the media, which consider themselves more “respectable,” regard as absolutely essential and worthy of recognition: even major papers like The Times and The Guardian, or the public broadcaster BBC, have long since made ‘infotainment’ and the obligatory crime and celebrity reports that edify the moral minds of their readers an indispensable part of their coverage. Nonetheless, as the guardians of good customs and morals and of the law, they feel entitled to cast a critical eye on the tabloids, on whether they act appropriately in their race for the most true-to-life reports and stories to push their circulation.

And these guardians have found evidence to the contrary at News of the World: Of course, a kidnapped victim, the casualties of terror attacks, the extramarital affairs of a football star, or royal malaises are legitimate subjects of journalism; this is the natural right of a citizen in a media-driven democracy. But when NoW journalists resorted to “phone hacking” in the case of a kidnapped child, they went too far. First, they violated the dignity of the victims, and second, they violated the law, thus even obstructing a police investigation. And last but not least, Murdoch’s papers bribed the police. By doing so, News of the World not only undermined the people’s trust in the forces of law and order and discredited a pillar of democracy, it also disgraced itself: “The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself” (Rupert Murdoch, July 7, 2011). The company boss saw no future for his paper and axed the Sunday tabloid. However, this did not spell the end of the “phone-hacking scandal.”

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The other, respectable branch of public opinion made sure of that by taking the scandal to a new, higher level. It decried the “misuse of power” by Murdoch’s tabloid media: a “media empire” is fogging the minds of the masses; it “replaces information with entertainment,” “screws the news,” and “tells us who we have to vote for” (The Guardian, July 19, 2011). In short, “Murdochracy” usurped democracy! But why “usurped”?! The ethos that Murdoch and his “empire” claim to represent by “holding others to account” is the same ethos subscribed to by his critics. Murdoch’s aim is to critically assess whether those who rule the country really deliver the success they owe the people and the nation; and this is the one and only yardstick that the “respectable” branch of public opinion applies when it casts a critical eye on the rulers in its dutiful reporting of the news. It is just that when it forms the same political judgments, it does so differently than the media it accuses of not being “objective.” The tabloids are professionals in the art of steering the public’s interest in politics — as well as the way their readers form judgments about it — toward the personal traits of politicians; they give the tough job of political rule a simplified, human face, thus making the masses politically aware in their own way. The tabloids let the masses peek through the keyhole at the human being within every politician. The Sun reports how Iron Lady Thatcher slammed her handbag on the negotiating table, demonstrating political leadership; how Tony Blair, on the occasion of Lady Di’s death, concocted his “People’s Princess” speech with the help of his spin doctor, thus proving his clever sense for the mood of the public; how “choleric” Gordon Brown rebuffed his cabinet members in his “Stalinist” manner; and how David Cameron has not only attended to Britain’s budget but also to his pregnant wife. By reporting in this way, the tabloids help a people form a sophisticated view of its politicians: they are portrayed as humans with strengths and weaknesses, as more or less trustworthy personages that deserve either approval or disapproval. This formation of opinion is put into practice in elections, when a sovereign people casts its vote on the political figures it promotes into office, and upon whom it bestows the power to rule over it. The popular press provides a people with a solid basis for its electoral decisions: not only does it present the politicians to the people, but at the same time it provides the moral and human aspects that the majority of voters employ when they take an interest in the exercise of political power, assess the individuals who wield power, and decide on their further career. This defines the power of the popular press and the indispensable service it renders to democracy: why else should an English housewife or a Scottish worker vote for Tony Blair or David Cameron besides finding them sympathetic? If a democratic election is about empowering politicians, then there is no more reliable argument for the electorate’s vote than the quality of the human being who you know and recognize as competent, who you somehow appreciate, and who can make tougher decisions than his rivals — and who, for these reasons, can be entrusted with executing the official business on which one’s own welfare depends.

Among those who judge this kind of political education to be primitive because they prefer a more lofty way of forming public opinion, the remarkable success of the tabloids in beguiling the masses arouses a nagging suspicion: in the view of the “respectable” media, which write for a different audience, the popular press and its ‘infotainment’ manipulates the masses and obstructs the true mission of the fourth estate. The essence of this criticism on the part of the advocates of sound opinion-formation is that the gutter press does not adequately address political problems and concerns but instead makes them play second fiddle to the main concern, which is the political personnel. By contrast, when members of the “respectable” press report on political issues, they focus on content, and they demonstrate their own political competence in their news coverage. As a matter of principle, they place themselves on a par with the political movers and shakers. They are concerned about the success of politicians’ plans, discuss alternative solutions, warn of misjudgments and failures, errors, and the like; but they are not stingy with praise if the outcome of a political decision fully satisfies them. They, too, know how to give their stories a human touch, but here as well, their judgments are much more competent and objective than those of their tabloid colleagues. They not only write about the efforts that one or another public figure undertakes to spruce up his or her appearance. They invariably ask critical questions and debate whether a politician’s artful performance will be a success, whether new glasses will really improve his image, and whether an impassioned and combative speech at the party conference will actually persuade the audience. They see themselves as competent judges and advisors to those in power, not only in terms of specific political issues, but also when it comes to giving them a human touch, and they tutor their readers on how to form high-brow political judgments. They share the mission of their colleagues from the popular press: to form public opinion, in this case the opinion of the more cultivated ranks; and this is the basis for the second, more formal side of their accusation that the popular press manipulates its readers. They regard what the popular press writes as an abuse of their trade, which consists, namely, in reflecting responsibly on political problems as well as the skill of those who manage them, presenting an offer to politically mature citizens to form their own, truly independent judgment — with ample background knowledge and even more differentiated weighing of how more adequate solutions to the ‘problems’ raised by those in charge might look. They don’t see the products of the popular press and its appeal to moral sentiments as educating the people to become mature citizens. They consider these rather a violation of people’s minds, as if the readers of these papers didn’t form their own opinion but instead copied everything they read as unfiltered opinion into a folder of their brain labeled ‘my own opinion.’ Of course, they themselves go to great lengths to form their educated readership into a community that holds the opinions concocted in their editorial offices, and harness this community for the task of bearing notional responsibility for the fate of the body politic. When their tabloid colleagues manage to do the same in their own ways; when they drag the masses of democratic rank and file into a world of politics and rule that has been given a professionally humanized face, thus offering them anything and everything as a matter of their own personal responsibility, then the “respectable” press considers this a highly problematic use of the power of the press. They do not view this as educating the people at all, only infusing them with opinions represented as their own. When they criticize the mass media for using manipulative tricks, the ‘respectable’ opinion-makers only express their contempt for the minds of the masses served by the tabloids; and they rope in their own readership for their contempt for the populace. It is the educated elite who read their papers, and they appreciate being addressed as if they were competent in everything and on at least equal footing with the high and mighty in the country and — unlike the latter — actually comprehended what’s really going on. Convinced of being the better elite, they indulge in the ‘scandal’ once again, scorning the poor journalism or the ignorant masses who deserve it, or preferably both. This is how they copy and paste their favorite journalist’s opinions into their own highly personal worldview.

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Needless to say, politicians aren’t plagued by elitist scruples about how the political will of the people is formed. The political parties that vie for governmental power in the UK view both the tabloids and the more “respectable” media, with their power to generate consent or destroy reputations, as highly useful tools for defeating their political rivals. “We believe in the power of news!” This is not only the motto of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and it is certainly more than a mere belief. Every government and every party has its ‘spin doctors,’ who communicate the party platform in a way that is appealing to the public and the electorate. And naturally, successful journalists who have direct contact with the editorial offices of the major papers are recruited by the parties for their own ‘public relations.’ It’s counted as a victory if the leading tabloid during the election campaign bears the headline: “The Sun backs Blair.” Or three election campaigns later: “Cameron — our hope!” and “Labour’s lost it!” — “it” being the support of The Sun.

The efforts of all parties to gain the support of Murdoch’s media empire and use its power for their own image campaigns are part of the normal business of press and party rivalry in British democracy. In Germany, the central organ for forming popular opinion is called BILD, and German politicians are just as keen on getting its attention. In Britain, this very interest is the true core of the ‘phone-hacking scandal,’ at least in the eyes of the respectable press: it accuses the politicians of cozying up to Murdoch in order to use his media power to promote their own ends, and of returning the favor with new media laws that help him expand his empire. Investigative journalists have uncovered how often the conservative Prime Minister, his deputy from the Liberal Party, and the Labour opposition leader have met ‘privately’ with Murdoch this year alone, and blame the government, which holds legitimate power, of making irresponsible use of its sovereignty and of being subservient to a non-legitimate power. Yet such ‘facts,’ which keep a politically well-educated readership entertained for months, only serve to cultivate the intentional misunderstanding that politicians who use the mass media for their own aims become lackeys of this very media. And they hardly do more than shed light on themselves, that is, on the standpoint of a respectable public arena that is concerned about the independence of politicians. As the fourth estate, it sees its role in ensuring that government and opposition make proper use of state power, which has to be sovereignly and exclusively oriented toward the criterion of the power itself: the success of the nation and the overcoming of all obstacles in its path. Wherever it sees evidence for its perpetual suspicion that politicians allow their decision-making to be influenced by special interests or are even bribed by a “media mogul” in his pursuit of profits, then the BBC and The Guardian are in their element: they feel called upon to rigorously investigate the “cronyism” and “corruption” of mass media and political elite, and to demand that political consequences be drawn from the scandal.

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The political parties won’t accept the accusation that they are just puppets of a media empire, and offer a lesson in democratic scandal management. They reject public criticism of their cronyism with the mass media by affirming it. Since they are now publicly beating their breast and blaming themselves for having been too close to Murdoch in the past, they can be trusted to keep their distance from the mass media in the future, just as the purist advocates of the democratic culture of information feel is appropriate:

“Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue … The truth is, we have all been in this together — the press, politicians and leaders of all parties — and yes, that includes me.” (David Cameron, news conference, July 8, 2011)

“The problem clearly goes beyond News International. I think what’s come to light over the last week or two is a symptom, if you like, of a much wider problem … different bits of the British system, the press, the police, the politicians, became too close to each other … You don’t want vested interests. What I’m saying in my speech today … you need a free press … But it’s very important not to let the free press be undermined by the out-of-control press.” (Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, on BBC Radio 4, July 14, 2011)

“What happens when newspapers, who claim, and often rightly claim, to be the protectors of the rights of the people, themselves infringe those rights? When those who claim to protect the public from the arbitrary workings of power indulge in arbitrary, cruel, even criminal abuse of power themselves? If one section of the media is allowed to grow so powerful that it becomes insulated from political criticism and scrutiny of its behaviour, the proper system of checks and balances breaks down and abuses of power are likely to follow. We must all bear responsibility for that. My party has not been immune from it. Nor has the current government and Prime Minister.” (Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband, in New Statesman, July 08, 2011)

The nation is supposed to acknowledge the self-criticism of the politicians — and then renew its trust in the credibility of the scandal-damaged political class, and to accept the self-criticism as proof of the sovereign power of the first two powers — legislative and executive — over the fourth one, the free press. The government promises to make sure that, in the future, no media enterprise will abuse the freedom of the press and erode trust in British democracy by reporters simply tapping telephones and bribing police officers, with the former chief reporter who instigated the whole matter sitting in cabinet. To demonstrate its determination, the government has opened criminal proceedings against corrupting reporters and corrupted policemen, convicted those guilty, and summoned the boss of the empire to testify in person before a parliamentary investigative committee. And all this to underline that the task of the free press is to foster — and not damage — belief in politicians’ integrity, the incorruptibility of the police, and the achievements of democratic public opinion. In this way, politicians make it clear that freedom of the press is an instrument of state power: if anything is an act of “Murdochracy,” it is this way of distancing oneself from the “media mogul” — with a circus that the tabloids could not have staged any better.