The only thing more remarkable than the news of the Rupert Murdoch hacking-bribery scandal itself is the rate of its unraveling—and Murdoch’s unraveling. For this international kingmaker and media mogul— who built an empire on yellow journalism and destroying the lives of others— it seems rather fitting that his fall from grace would take place under such sensationalism and salaciousness.
Allegations that the now-defunct News of the World, Murdoch’s largest tabloid, maintained a massive phone hacking operation targeting 4,000 people—including politicians, celebrities and murder victims—has led to 10 arrests in the UK. One of those arrested was Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s deputy at News International until she recently resigned. And the top two officials at Scotland Yard quit their posts amid allegations that the corporation bribed the police.
And now Rupert, his son James and the ousted Brooks come before the British Parliament, humbled and hat in hand, to apologize and express their shock that this sort of wrongdoing even took place.
U.S. lawmakers have hinted that the phone hacking scandal is about to spill over into the States, as the FBI announced an investigation into alleged hacking of 9-11 victims and their families. Meanwhile, Murdoch’s News Corp. has lost billions in just days, and rightly so, as he was forced to drop his bid to buy British company BSkyB. The deal would have garnered him 40 percent of the UK broadcasting market. And oddly, in a case of peculiar timing, the whistleblower, a News of the World reporter, mysteriously died. And certainly there’s more to come. After all, it is already known that Murdoch has paid about $655 million to erase charges of corporate espionage in the U.S.
Given the questionable ways in which the billionaire has conducted business over the years, the revelations should not come as a complete surprise. As he destroyed unions, competitors and political enemies, Rupert Murdoch was allowed to make his own set of the shady rules while everyone watched. And some were paid to look the other way. When one person is allowed to amass such power and influence, graft and corruption are often a part of the process. In Britain, the Murdoch family purportedly used criminals to do dirty jobs. And like any proper organized crime boss, he owned politicians, carrying them in his pocket “like so many nickels and dimes.”
In America, Murdoch’s New York Post and Fox News, masquerading as champions of working-class populism, offend our sensibilities as they endorse the most regressive rightwing policies. The Post’s cartoon depiction of President Obama as an ape shot to death by two white police officers reflects a long history of racially offensive images and words promulgated by that newspaper. Moreover, Murdoch’s “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel has operated as a media arm of the Republican Party, and an official network of the Tea Party movement. Fox News has carved out its niche by offering race-baiting as standard fare, and offering a soapbox to personalities with ties to hate groups, including Glenn Beck. Despite this, lawmakers have willingly appeared on the network. And one must wonder if Murdoch bought his U.S. citizenship, which he needed as a prerequisite for owning American television stations.
With the mogul’s downfall and removal from the company he built now a plausible scenario, Rupert Murdoch provides a cautionary tale. Journalism at its best acts as a disinfectant. But through the use of race baiting and outright lying in the reporting of the so-called “news,” Murdoch has polluted the public discourse and has helped to defile and degrade our politics. And while journalists at their best are supposed to act as a check on official power, News Corp. has reveled in its ability to accumulate power by any means and serve the interests of the greedy, a media version of the Koch brothers. No scruples, no code of ethics, no social responsibility, just cozying up to the powerful and providing them cover. Last year, News Corp. contributed $1 million each to the Republican Governors Association and the Chamber of Commerce on the grounds that it was “in the interest of the country and of all the shareholders ... that there be a fair amount of change in Washington.”
The Murdochs still control a great deal of U.S. media real estate, most of which includes TV and movie studios, and they will undoubtedly scramble to protect it. But things now must change. For all of the harm News Corp. has caused, something good must come out of it. For one, society must prevent the circumstances that allow a future News Corp. to weld such power, unregulated and unaccountable, and unduly influence the affairs of government.
Democracy is stifled when a single player controls too much of the airwaves for its own good, and dresses up partisan hackery, unsubstantiated opinions and outright fabrications as the truth. However, a disinterested, uninformed public—disengaged from public life, perhaps due to the bad economy and daily stressors and hardships, among other reasons—facilitates democratic rot as well.
The American Psychological Association defines civic engagement as “Individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern.” The New York Times defines civic engagement as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”
Morally and civically responsible people see themselves as part of a larger social fabric. They take ownership of society’s problems, and may even take action when necessary. One organization that hopes to foster civic engagement and leadership in local communities is the Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project. In partnership with several other community organizations— Philadelphia Student Union, SEIU Healthcare PA, Casa Monarca, Unified Taxi Workers Alliance, and Logan CDC— MMP just opened five Public Computer Centers throughout the city to train people in computer skills and community journalism. The centers were made possible with $18.2 million in federal stimulus funds.
MMP is a member of the Freedom Rings Partnership, which is led by the City of Philadelphia Division of Technology and the Urban Affairs Coalition, and is designed to provide computers, computer training and internet access to low-income communities. A total of 77 centers in community centers and social service organizations throughout the city will train 15,000 people in digital literacy. “MMP and the groups we are partnering with have led the way in improving education, working conditions, healthcare and quality of life for Philadelphians,” said Desi Burnette, Strategic Coordinator with Media Mobilizing Project. “This program will strengthen our ability to build community-driven solutions to the current economic crisis.” And as Bryan Mercer, MMP Program Organizer noted, they will use twenty-first century technology to bring low-income communities together to solve their problems. “In a time of budget cuts and unemployment, these Public Computer Centers offer a way to connect people – not just to the Internet, but to each other,” he said.
So, at a time when the policies of large corporations, disconnected from the community, are tearing the fabric of those very communities, it is good to see efforts to build them up. And when media empires crumble, we must prepare others to fill the void.