The Long Term Impact of the News Corp. Scandal

The Economist asked me (part of its “future of news” series) what I thought the impact of the News Corp. voicemail hacking case would be. The link goes to my reply, which I’m cross-posting it here (and on Google+):

It is clear that the Murdochs’ appearance before the parliamentary committee did not begin to save them from further trouble. How far and high the scandal will go remains to be seen. For the news business, the impact could in the end be useful—provided, of course, that governments do not use this scandal as an excuse to clamp down on the proper role of the press.

The case could be useful for several reasons: first, it might lead tabloid journalists to behave a little bit more like human beings and a little bit less like jackals. Tabloid journalism can be excellent, when it is focused on genuine wrongdoing by the rich and powerful. The private lives of these people are rarely relevant, but actions that affect people outside their families and social circles are entirely relevant.

Second, it might prompt all journalists to do a bit of soul-searching about the bargains we make with our sources. Reporters at the best organisations may not pay the police, but they have tacit arrangements, including the reality that few journalists will probe as hard at the motives or actions of their best sources as they do at the targets of their stories. Careers are enhanced by favourable coverage; this may not be payoff (and it may not even strike the journalist as a payment of any sort) but there is a connection.

Third, and most important (if least likely), it might lead the consumers of the tabloid press—this particularly applies to television and talk radio as well as newspapers and magazines—to consider their own role in the sleaze that so often passes for journalism. So many people now say they are appalled by the tabloid press and the doings in London, yet they still click on stories that give details of the latest celebrity scandal or news about the warped among us. These consumers of sleaze are the reason the Murdochs and their fellow bottom-feeders do what they do, and why they’ve found it so profitable. I hope they’ll at least make that connection in the future.

We should all worry, however, that governments will seize on this particular case to further restrict journalists’ ability to do their work. On both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in much of the world, the wealthy and powerful and their patrons in government would like nothing better than to curb the press.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, among other Murdoch-controlled properties, has fretted loudly about the attacks on News Corporation since the scandal broke open. They claim the fierce criticism of their company threatens the freedom of the press itself. In fact, if this case does lead to further press restrictions that inhibit robust journalism, it will have been Murdoch and his cronies who caused the damage. That would be a shameful legacy.

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