Before the shaving cream on Rupert Murdoch’s face even had a chance to dry, some commentators were already writing his corporate obituary, arguing that the “most humble day” of his life also represented a decisive turn in his family’s fortunes. Others argued that the doddering patriarch who appeared in front of a British parliamentary committee on July 19 gave a clever performance, bearing little resemblance to the hands-on, detail-obsessed tyrant terrifyingly familiar to News Corporation executives, and predicted that Murdoch would once again outwit his opposition.
But whatever Murdoch’s fate, he’s not really the problem. Though far from blameless, he is merely a symptom of the real disease: the concentration of so much power and influence in a single media corporation and a political landscape that offers virtually no check to the exercise of that power. Besides hacking into cellphones, News Corp. has bullied British politicians across the spectrum, dropped the BBC from its Star TV satellite in Asia to curry favor with China’s rulers and, through Fox News, fanned the flames of intolerance and hatred in America and fostered an atmosphere in which even the threat of debt default is preferable to any increase in taxes. The issue is not the Murdoch family but the Murdochization of British and US media. The result is a relentlessly coarsening public debate in which alternatives to the status quo are shouted down by a faux-populist chorus of well-paid thugs who make sure society’s victims direct their anger at one another.
So the news that the US Justice Department is preparing to subpoena News Corp. executives over allegations of bribery to British police and possible phone-hacking on US soil is encouraging. The Securities and Exchange Commission is also considering action, and at least ten separate British inquiries are now open. But the adage about too many cooks is probably just as relevant. One problem facing any regulator or national legislature is that News Corp. is a truly global company. The most recent GAO report shows the company operating 782 foreign subsidiaries—of which 152 are in such notorious tax havens as the British Virgin Islands (sixty-two), the Cayman Islands (thirty-three) and Luxembourg (four). The career of Les Hinton—or indeed James Murdoch—demonstrates the ease with which the company shuffles managers from continent to continent. Tracking the flow of News Corp. assets around the world is far more difficult.
And that assumes that US and British officials have the courage to take on the Murdoch empire. With thousands of journalists on the company’s books—and an untold number of private investigators and other practitioners of journalism’s black arts paid off the books—News Corp. has the capacity to unearth the kind of titillating personal information that can put a troublesome regulator or legislator on Page Six of the New York Post or the front page of the Sun. Put that leverage in the hands of a corporation that routinely pays millions to favored politicians (Newt Gingrich was offered $4.5 million from HarperCollins; Sarah Palin’s advance for Going Rogue was upward of $1.25 million), and it is hardly surprising it took so long for the tenacious Guardian to get anyone else to pay attention to this scandal.
Criminal prosecution is indeed part of the answer, so we welcome reports that the Justice Department is seeking to cooperate with the British police—whose own reputation has been severely damaged by this scandal. Successful prosecution will take time and transatlantic coordination, but it is essential if only to avoid the corrosive cynicism that follows whenever malefactors of great wealth escape the consequences of their deeds. Activists will need to make sure that national boundaries don’t prevent officials from connecting the dots across jurisdictions—and that the current focus on individual acts of corruption doesn’t let the larger issue of media consolidation off the hook.
We also need to recognize that much of what’s wrong with News Corp. is nonetheless perfectly legal. Neither fines nor prison sentences will remove the chilling effect that comes when a country’s public conversation is controlled by a few powerful men and women—regardless of whether they have the same last name. Instead, we need to find ways to lower, not raise, the barriers for entry into that conversation—and to make sure that those who do enter are treated with civility rather than derision. We need a revival of anti-trust politics and a recognition that media monopoly will never deliver the fearless, accurate, incorruptible, independent reporting so necessary for the health of democracy. Freedom of the press is too important to belong only to the man—or the corporation—that owns one.