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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The blame goes beyond a tabloid


By TINA BURRETT

After 168 years of titillating Britons over breakfast, the News of the World has closed. Last Sunday's edition was the tabloid's last. Allegations of police bribery and phone tapping by Britain's best-selling newspaper were met with public outrage. But are these revelations really so surprising?

It is repugnant, but hardly surprising, that the News of the World asked a private investigator to hack into mobile-phones — including those belonging to the families of terrorism victims, dead soldiers and murdered schoolgirls. Rupert Murdoch's best-selling tabloid has long been drunk on its own power. But blame for the loutish culture of British's popular press does not rest with the media alone.

If the press have ended up in the gutter, it is because we are all there with them, politicians and public alike. Reporters tap phones because readers want to hear the private conversations of those in the public eye. Press regulation and privacy protection remain weak because politicians are more concerned with courting the favor of media tycoons whose support they want during elections.

Britain's tabloid press have been increasingly out of control since the 1990s. The day after the 1992 general election, the News of the World's sister paper, The Sun, proudly declared that it was "the Sun wot won it" for Prime Minister John Major, by heaping ridicule on his opponent, Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.

Despite media scholars disproving The Sun's influence on the outcome of the 1992 election, politicians continue to believe that political office is a gift from the media. A succession of prime ministers — Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron — have queued up to pay homage to Britain's most mighty media mogul: its Sun king, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's News Corporation owns 40 percent of Britain's national press by audience share, including broadsheet publication The Times as well as the muck-racking Sun and News of the World, and a 39 percent stake in satellite broadcaster BSkyB. With this great media power comes influence.

Soon after becoming Labour Party leader, Blair flew out to address News Corporation's annual conference on an island off the coast of Murdoch's native Australia. Blair and his team dropped everything to make the grueling 24-hour journey to the other side of the world to meet Murdoch. They were rewarded for their efforts when The Sun came out officially in support of Blair ahead of his victory in the 1997 election.

In the wake of his landslide victory Blair thanked The Sun for giving him support that "really made the difference."

Current Prime Minister David Cameron's entanglements with the Murdoch-owned media are personal as well as political. Cameron is a friend of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of Murdoch's U.K. operation and a former editor of News of the World. Brooks denies any knowledge of wrongdoing at the newspaper during her stewardship, and has thus far refused to fall on her sword, insisting that she is the "best person" to lead the company out of its present difficulties.

Until January 2011, Andy Coulson — another former News of the World editor implicated in the phone-hacking scandal — was Cameron's Downing Street director of communications. Cameron hired Coulson in 2007 after the latter's resignation from the News of the World following the conviction of one of the newspaper's reporters for bugging celebrity cellphones. Coulson's arrest on Friday, after the release of emails suggesting he approved illegal payments to police officers while at the News of the World, calls into question Cameron's judgment in bringing the disgraced former editor into the heart of government.

In demanding that Cameron apologize for appointing Coulson, Labour leader Ed Miliband last week finally found his voice.

Since becoming leader last year, Miliband has struggled to connect with voters. But when grilling Cameron over Coulson in the House of Commons and calling for a public inquiry into events at the News of the World, Miliband articulated genuine public concern. Miliband has also insisted that, in light of the current scandal, News Corporation's bid to buy the remaining 61 percent of BSkyB should now be referred to the Competition Commission. At present, approval of the deal rests with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Since becoming Labour eader, however, Miliband has sent out mixed messages about the Murdoch media empire. A leaked email sent from Miliband's communications office in January instructed members of the shadow Cabinet not to conflate Murdoch's BskyB bid with phone-tapping allegations and to guard against "anything which appears to be attacking a particular newspaper group out of spite." The email was sent by Miliband's head of communications, another former Murdoch employee, the ex-Times journalist Tom Baldwin.

The New Statesman reports that at a News Corporation party in June, where Miliband met Murdoch for the first time, senior Labour politicians outnumbered their Tory counterparts. But neither the Labour leader nor the British public can have it both ways. We get the media we deserve. In their arrogance, the British tabloids thought there was no limit to the public's appetite for the steady diet of sex, scandal and crime that they provide. They were wrong. But for this to be a turning point, the whole of British society needs to take responsibility for allowing the worst elements of the gutter press to dictate the terms of national politics and culture.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan.


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