If the federal debt ceiling debate is making you want to bang your head against a wall, follow the shenanigans going on in Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers. It’s a yarn that won’t make you feel any better about the world we live in, but the phone hacking can of worms has been opened and the subsequent and ongoing police investigation, Parliamentary intervention and impending inquiry, and spiraling business ramifications have a more promising story arc for those who give a damn.
Rupert is now pulling the plug on his bid to control BSkyB, Britain’s premier satellite provider. He owns 39% now so no crocodile tears, please. The illegality in his British newspaper business is hitting him in the only place he appears to care – his wallet.
The scandal that began some time back and involved so-what stories of hacked phones, Royals and partying, has been revealed to be and as we suspected at the time, the tip of a rotten journalism practice iceberg at Rupert’s headquarters in Wapping and around Britain. This rotten journalism that threatens to upend Murdoch’s British operations relies on an illegal, invasive and pervasive practice known as ‘blagging’, which is “knowingly or recklessly obtaining or disclosing personal data or information without the consent of the data controller.” A typical episode may involve the blagger misrepresenting his or her identity in order to gain enough personal information on a target person from a third party that enables the blagger to hack into a data center, such as a voice mail account, and access the target’s personal information.
Part and parcel of blagging is a wider circle of illegal conduct – cover-ups and payoffs to those who may know or do know what the blagger is doing, bribery, the use of private investigators to commit felonies for hire, plus a spectrum of other electronic and property crimes.
The defense for this panoply of illegal practice is that the alleged felony conduct is in the pursuit of the public’s ‘right to know’ and for education and the public good generally.
The trouble is, that oft-used defense of illegality founders because the stories News International and Murdoch chose to pursue were not Watergate-like stories. Rather, News and Murdoch have chosen and continue to choose to pursue scandal and rank exploitation for its own sake and, where expedient, for partisan gain. The ends justifying the illegal means is a moral defense as old as journalism. News of the World is a pretty trivial end.
But blagging was not confined to Murdoch’s more freaky publications. The Sunday Times has been implicated, and one question worth pondering is whether there is any evidence to come of any Times use of the insidious practice, or, indeed, in operations outside Britain.
That Murdoch has refused to fire Rebekah Brooks, the Generation X schmoozer and greaser who helmed News of the World and now News International and who appears to be, as they say, in it up to her neck, is but the latest sign of Murdoch’s and News’ fundamental ambivalence towards the pursuit of truth to power. Fox News, anyone?
So what will Rupert do? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t bet on a mea culpa campaign by anyone except those convicted. There is too much money in it.