Watching the BBC’s live coverage of the Murdochs’ testimony before the Culture Committee in Parliament, while sitting on a couch in southeast London, and watching my twitter feed roll on about the hacking scandal, I noticed a few things, and thought I’d share them.
1. My friends in London keep saying to me, “Imagine if this were in America! You’d be outraged!” I keep looking at them and wanting to pat them on the head and say, “We don’t really do genuine outrage anymore.” The story is on its face about reporters and editors hacking into phones and paying cops for information and access. But it’s evolved into a story about a family and its acolytes throwing the weight of a media empire around to curry favor and fealty with members of government, ultimately coming to believe that it was above the law. In other words, it’s what we seem to have come to very nearly expect from large corporations – a club to which News International most definitely belongs. I imagine most Americans nodding their heads at the news, maybe even uttering a few ‘tsk-tsk’s, but then returning their attention to whatever Sarah Palin has said, or which young white woman is missing, or the latest tale of family and murder.
2. Journalists and columnists in my twitter feed seemed surprised when Rupert said that he is too busy to be intimately involved in the goings-on of a paper worth about 1% of his overall business. Yet this is very similar to the excuse rendered by the CEOs of our banks when the economy collapsed under the weight of ‘innovative’ financial products. And where are those CEOs now?
Vikram Pandit (Citibank), Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs), and John Stumpf (Wells Fargo) all continue to hold their posts.
John Mack, former CEO of Morgan Stanley, remains chairman; James Gorman, who had been co-president since ’07, replaced him as CEO last year after his retirement. Robert Henrikson retired from Metlife last year, and was replaced by Steven Kandarian, who had served as the chief investment officer since 2005. Ken Lewis, much rumored to be a candidate for a sacking, stayed on as CEO of Bank of America until early in 2010, when he retired and was replaced by Brian Moynihan (who’d been with the business since 2004). Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers went down with his ship.
So – it appears that only John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch was actually sacked, after the acquisition of his company and revelations of excessive executive bonuses and the concealment of losses during the acquisition of his company by Bank of America. He is now CEO of CIT Group.
And while many were served subpoenas, none are currently serving any kind of jail time. The banks were bailed out, and have been awarding their executives record bonuses the past few years. I’d say the excuses worked.
I get that Rupert is not a banker; I get that he’s built a family dynasty with shareholders who stand to benefit under a variety of scenarios (though may suffer in the short term). Which makes me wonder… is it the press that’s different, or the Murdochs?
3. Perhaps we think that the press is different. But I think I am beginning to separate two constituent groups that make up ‘the press’: there is the news media – a commercial enterprise, often organized within or alongside entertainment divisions on television and owned by massive holding companies with diverse commercial portfolios in print; and there is the trade of journalism.
In America, we professionalized journalism – previously a journeyman trade learned largely on the job by reporters who might one day earn enough gravitas or attract enough loyal readers to warrant an editorship or opinion column. By making journalism a profession, and imposing standards on this profession, we legitimized publishers, editors and reporters in a way that even the long-held mantle of the Fourth Estate had not. But it wasn’t long before that professionalization – and the trust offered by large audiences of subscribers and viewers – was a commodity to be leveraged by the large corporations who bought the nation’s newspapers and broadcasters.
The Murdochs – regardless of what Rupert might have done in his younger years – are corporate directors, not editors, publishers or reporters. It is of great interest to me that the British public (or at least the London libs) are interested in holding them to account as the corporate governors overseeing a media empire. It’s not just about being liable for the illicit acts of corporate agents; it’s about being the custodians of a public trust, a trust that has been definitively broken. I wonder if we Americans see the corporate parents of our news media in the same light – as custodians of a public trust with ultimate responsibility for the ethics and efficacy of the papers, stations and sites they own.
4. Not all those who play roles in the American professional news media can be called, honestly, “journalists” in the sense of reporters or editors; many now are merely talking heads, newsreaders, celebrities, or former politicians. Hard-nosed reporters pursuing shoe-leather journalism are few, far between, and largely unseen.
But I’m not sure which camp we can fairly say Rebekah Brooks was in.
The name of the game in journalism is access – to information, to sources who have information or can confirm it, and to the subjects of their inquiries. To gain access one must curry favor or gain trust. This requires more than intelligence and good manners. It requires a canniness, a charm, and a certain ruthlessness. And it requires having something of value to offer the people who grant you this access. Sources like to be compensated; PR people and communications directors expect a little tit-for-tat. Not all sources will feel that speaking truth to power is its own reward; PR people will eventually turn down the spigot if they feel they’ve been burned. It is, no doubt, a tightrope walk to get the story and keep your personal dignity.
One could argue that Rebekah Brooks and her ilk were very good at this game – until they weren’t (which is to say, until they got caught). But doesn’t the coverage by the New York Times and the Guardian also feel a bit like Claude Raines in Casablanca, exclaiming that they are shocked! shocked! to find that there is gambling in this establishment, while pocketing their winnings?).
5. I would hope that this prompts a conversation about government corruption, and privacy. Not about hacking (which Fox News says is the real scourge), nor about whether Rupert Murdoch is Mephistopheles to the profession’s Doctor Faustus – because this story surfaced some real corruption (the cops simultaneously on the Met’s payroll and NI’s own under-the-table dole; MPs intimidated by or in collusion with politically interested publishers and corporate directors). Not to mention personal privacy.
Where the rubber met the road on this story was the hacking into the voicemail of a missing girl, deleting messages in hopes of getting more, and thereby interfering with a police investigation, allowing the family of the missing – and ultimately, murdered – girl to believe she was alive, and in consequence of these bad acts, destroying evidence. The Brits were shocked, initially, at the grotesqueness of it all – a young girl taken and killed, and a prurient press taking advantage of their access (politically, bureaucratically, technologically) to get the scoop above all else. As the news of hacking into the phones of others – including fallen soldiers – piled on, there was a sense that the public trust in the press had not just been sullied but utterly destroyed. The thought-bubble hanging over London was “Is nothing sacred?”
But today the thought-bubble hanging over my twitter feed appears to read, “Let’s get ’em!”
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