The News of the World’s disgraceful phone hacking scandal has brought new attention to media ownership issues. Indeed, for those championing the dangers of media consolidation, an ethical scandal involving one of the most well-known media moguls could be seen as a blessing.
As the leader of Britain’s Labour Party argued while advocating for the dismantling of Murdoch’s empire, “If you want to minimize the abuses of power, then that kind of concentration of power is frankly quite dangerous.” Although it is easy to conceive a possible link between the News Corporation’s malfeasance and its sizable influence, it is difficult to pinpoint the root of The News of the World’s criminality with certainty.
Proponents of media consolidation would dismiss claims that the News of the World’s failings were affected by the concentrated power behind the paper. After all, it is easier to expect the use of bribery or other unseemly tactics at a smaller operation; such ethical violations only require a few unscrupulous journalists willing to stoop to low levels.
On the upside, media consolidation may create efficiency in an increasingly economically challenged industry, allowing for superior content. Centralized ownership does not necessitate monotonous offerings. The market may, and probably will, demand diversification. One study has shown that when media outlets converge, the viewpoints they express do not.
On the other hand, those wary of media consolidation would remind us that the violations at the News of the World went beyond a few rogue reporters, with members of the British government and police having close ties to the crimes. When a media corporation becomes as influential as Murdoch’s, politicians may come to expect kickbacks, thereby compromising politicians’ independence and threatening the public’s access to unfiltered information.
And as illustrated by the important role other news outlets played in unearthing the News Corp. scandal, media diversity is important in ensuring that media itself is properly policed. Case in point: Murdoch-owned Fox News provided one-fifth and one-sixth the amount of coverage of the phone hacking scandal as did rivals MSNBC and CNN, respectively.
Regardless of whether or not consolidated media ownership created an environment conducive to the News of the World’s crimes, the need to reinvigorate journalistic ethics is clear, and will hopefully be felt by journalists at media operations of all sizes. Murdoch’s newspaper’s invasion of privacy is all the more offensive in that it appears to have been conducted in pursuit of stories having little to do with the public interest.
The News of the World’s phone hacking was not aimed at uncovering corporate or political corruption; instead, its invasive techniques focused on sensational stories catering to prurient interest in people’s private lives. The News of the World’s entire approach to journalism – not just its illegal tactics – deserves criticism.
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