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Humbuggery, Hacking, and Media Infighting in the Demise of News of the World

July 13th 2011

Media - Hugh Grant plenty hacked off

I cannot join a mass movement for which Hugh Grant is a spokesman. Understandably, Mr. Grant has a grudge against London tabloids. For years they have pursued him, photographed him, lied about him, and shamed him. He fought back. He won. The News of the World is dead.

But when the star of Four Weddings and a Funeral becomes a star of a campaign to kneecap the international media conglomerate News Corp, something stinks.

A couple of months ago in the New Statesman, Mr. Grant published an account of how he had secretly recorded an incriminating interview with former NOTW journalist Paul McMullen. The Guardian described this as “fearlessly calling Rupert Murdoch to account.”

Now he has become a hero in the Guardian’s campaign to stop secret tape-recording and phone taps by the gutter press. The Guardian’s editor says that he would love to employ him as a columnist – but can’t afford it.

Stranger people have been hailed as prophets. But it seems odd for an actor whose image has been built as much on his extracurricular activities as on his films to be applauded as an authority on journalistic ethics.

This is the kind of thing that happens in moral panics. The front pages of newspapers in the US, Canada and Australia -- where the NOTW was unknown – are now chewing on the bones of five-year-old crimes by seamy journalists and the responsibilities of News International’s board.

The New York Times, never last out of the stable in a stampede to reach the moral high ground, is breaking its own scoops about skulduggery in News International management.

Bizarrely, there has been more media coverage of the slimy working habits of NOTW journalists than there was of the sexed-up dossier which former Prime Minister Tony Blair used to drag the United Kingdom into the Iraq War.

As a result of the deceptive tactics used by Blair’s office, about 180 British servicemen died, and who knows how many Iraqi civilians. How many have died as a result of phone hacking by News of the World?

Feelings have certainly been hurt and shamed as a result of phone hacks by journalists or their private detectives. The family of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who was abducted and murdered in 2002, was outraged. And rightly so. NOTW journalists hacked into her mobile phone message bank and listened to messages left by family and friends. To make room for more messages, they deleted old ones. This gave false hope to Milly’s family and could have destroyed evidence. Then journalists had the gall to interview them about their hopes that she was still alive.

This was sordid, inexcusable and illegal.

As was hacking into the phones of grieving relatives of British soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, NOTW appears to have been giving “backhanders” to police and Scotland Yard in return for information. Bribing the police is serious business. Those responsible should face justice.

But all of these actions, however despicable, did no violence. Ordinary members of the public whose privacy was violated have a right to protest being manipulated by News of the World. But is that sufficient justification for the tsunami of outrage generated by competitors of News Corp? As media expert Tim Luckhurst wrote in the UK Independent, "It is no insult to people who have been shocked and hurt by the News of the World to recognise that phone hacking is simply not the most appalling thing the British press has ever done."

Now the public is being manipulated again, this time by the top end of town, whose indignation over NOTW seems matched by disdain for its readers. Ned Beauman, an as-yet-unpublished British novelist writing for the New York Times, expressed – hopefully tongue in cheek – the social gap between the London tabloids and the London broadsheets:

“Although The News of the World was one of the most popular papers in Britain, I know no one who read it and have never read it myself. My news media intake is high, but I still live in a very tiny bubble, so I have no real idea what the average British person likes to sit down with on a Sunday, just as I have no real idea what the average British person thinks, wants, eats or smells like.”

The phone hacking scandal has been fuelled by the unpredictable eruption of the bubbling volcano of average British persons’ sentimentality. In 1997 it exploded with the death, funeral and burial of Princess Diana. Fourteen years later Britain is once again luxuriating in a hot tub of overpowering and utterly disproportionate emotion.

But in the searing words of American writer James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son, “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty.”

Isn’t there something absurdly dishonest about the Guardian’s humbuggery? This is the newspaper, remember, which published the stolen Wikileaks cables. Just think for a moment. Who profits by the humiliation of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp? Who profits if his executives are enmeshed in a web of allegations and investigations?

In the UK the answer is the Guardian which competes with the London Times, a News Corp title. In the US, it is the New York Times, which desperately needs to hobble the Wall Street Journal, acquired by Murdoch in 2007.
 
Public indignation is being deployed as a weapon in a cultural and commercial assault upon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and its media outlets. Murdoch desperately wants to buy out the broadcaster BSkyB. His rivals and enemies fear that Murdoch will turn BSkyB into a trans-Atlantic Fox News, fouling British air with conservative social values and reactionary politics.

This is hardly a secret. Late last year the coalition’s Business Secretary, Vince Cable, was taped by undercover reporters from the Daily Telegraph posing as Liberal Democrat supporters. He told them that he would block the purchase regardless of the merits of the case. “I have declared war on Mr. Murdoch and I think we’re going to win,” he told them. Murdoch clearly has powerful enemies in the British establishment.  (Very few complaints, by the way, about the ethics of this particular sting.)

The industrial scale of the NOTW’s hacking and the inability –or unwillingness -- of his executives to purge rogues from NOTW has become the perfect excuse to paint Murdoch as not “a fit and proper person” to control a UK television channel. The scandal has come at a perfect time to disrupt his bid and to embarrass the Tory half of the governing coalition.

Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids are a reeking blot on British cultural life. But you have to be one of the gormless fops played by Hugh Grant to believe that the war on News Corp is anything more than media pitbulls fighting to be top dog.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. He has no financial or other interest in News Corp.


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