The latest revelations in the widening News International scandal are simply stunning. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” is apparently as true now as it was in Shakespeare’s day. The idea that a news organization would have the audacity to target a
head of state a Cabinet member and later PM over a decade, as News International papers the Sun and the Sunday Times did with Gordon Brown, and not with the usual tools of invective and gossip, but via the theft of personal information, raises the scandal to a whole new level.
It’s bad enough to monitor cell phone calls. The state of cell phone security is a disgrace, as our Richard Smith points out. One of my clients (a media company!) refuses to discuss deals or corporate strategy on mobile phones for that very reason. Per the Guardian, the decade-long campaign against Brown included:
Repeatedly obtaining data from his bank account
Hacking into his accountants’ computer to get his tax fiilngs
Fooling his attorneys into providing details from his legal records
Purloining family medical records (which led to the publication of information about Brown’s ill infant son)
Suborning a police officer to scrape national police computer records
Several issues bear noting:
There is no way to pretend this sort of lawbreaking and invasion of privacy was not News International policy. This took place at two separate papers, the Sun and the Sunday Times.
There is also no way to pretend that Rebekah Brooks’ fingerprints are not all over this. From the Guardian:
In October 2006, the then editor of the Sun, Rebekah Brooks, contacted the Browns to tell them that they had obtained details from the medical file of their four-month-old son, Fraser, which revealed his cystic fibrosis.
This appears to have been a clear breach of the Data Protection Act, which would allow such a disclosure only if it were in the public interest. Friends of the Browns say the call caused them immense distress, since they were only coming to terms with the diagnosis, which had not been confirmed. The Sun published the story.
It seems implausible that Rupert Murdoch, who is a noted micromanager and is famously devoted to Brooks, would not have been kept in the loop about the efforts to obtain information about Brown.
Scotland Yard charged News International with sabotaging its inquiry into police corruption via leaking critical information. Again from the Guardian:
The police say the information being leaked comes from documents handed over by NI executives and their legal team at meetings over the past few weeks. They said it was agreed to keep the information confidential “so that [the police] could pursue various lines of inquiry, identify those responsible without alerting them and secure best evidence”.
All parties at the meetings agreed the information on the table was to be kept out of the public eye until early August, when the police must hand over all relevant information to those pursuing hacking claims against NI. At that point, suspects will be able to see what evidence the police have and will be able to prepare their defence accordingly.
Update: the piece de resistance: right after Scotland Yard began its probe of the now defunct News of the World, the paper also hacked the phones of the senior police investigators on its case. It doesn’t get much more brazen than this. The tabloid leaked claims that one had inflated his reimbursable expenses and was having affairs and another inappropriately used frequent flier miles from work for personal travel. Back to the original post.
This call by Labor MP Tom Watson for James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks to be suspended from office and face the full force of the law based on the information available about News International’s conduct as last week is even more urgent now (hat tip Richard Smith):
As much as it is easy for Americans to pretend that these revelations about the sorry state of the press are due to the powerful role Murdoch has carved out for himself in England, as well as the scurrilousness of its tabloid press, these extracts from a George Monbiot comment suggest that the similarities are considerably greater than the differences:
s. Look at the remarkable admission by the rightwing columnist Janet Daley in this week’s Sunday Telegraph. “British political journalism is basically a club to which politicians and journalists both belong,” she wrote. “It is this familiarity, this intimacy, this set of shared assumptions … which is the real corruptor of political life. The self-limiting spectrum of what can and cannot be said … the self-reinforcing cowardice which takes for granted that certain vested interests are too powerful to be worth confronting. All of these things are constant dangers in the political life of any democracy.”
Most national journalists are embedded, immersed in the society, beliefs and culture of the people they are meant to hold to account. They are fascinated by power struggles among the elite but have little interest in the conflict between the elite and those they dominate. They celebrate those with agency and ignore those without….The papers cannot announce that their purpose is to ventriloquise the concerns of multimillionaires; they must present themselves as the voice of the people…
So the rightwing papers run endless exposures of benefit cheats, yet say scarcely a word about the corporate tax cheats. They savage the trade unions and excoriate the BBC. They lambast the regulations that restrain corporate power. They school us in the extrinsic values – the worship of power, money, image and fame – which advertisers love but which make this a shallower, more selfish country. Most of them deceive their readers about the causes of climate change. These are not the obsessions of working people. They are the obsessions thrust upon them by the multimillionaires who own these papers.
The corporate media is a gigantic astroturfing operation: a fake grassroots crusade serving elite interests. In this respect the media companies resemble the Tea Party movement, which claims to be a spontaneous rising of blue-collar Americans against the elite but was founded with the help of the billionaire Koch brothers and promoted by Murdoch’s Fox News.
Journalism’s primary purpose is to hold power to account. This purpose has been perfectly inverted. Columnists and bloggers are employed as the enforcers of corporate power, denouncing people who criticise its interests, stamping on new ideas, bullying the powerless.
Monbiot suggested a Hippocratic Oath for journalists and suggested some text. Unfortunately, having seen corporate mission statements and codes of conduct honed in endless drafting sessions and summarily ignored once completed, I don’t place much stock in this sort of exercise.
The fact that Aljazeera is making a mockery of what passes for Anglo-Saxon journalism is a perverse good sign; it establishes that there is a real, substantial audience for serious reporting. While the magnitude of the Murdoch shock may well have a lasting, salutary effect on the press in the UK, I’m not optimistic that any self examination or course correction will take place in America’s propaganda-infested media.