COMMENTARY | Though grabbing fewer headlines in the United States, the recent phone hacking scandal in Britain has rocked international news and shaken up Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. media empire. Earlier this month, it was revealed that journalists working for Murdoch hacked into the voice mails of individuals in order to gain illegal insight into their particular situation, according to The Canadian Press.
Those among the many victims include fallen soldiers, 2002 murder victim Milly Dowler, and Hollywood actress Sienna Miller.
In each case, the over-aggressive journalism was authorized to gain headline making-scoops by the Murdoch-owned, London-based daily newspaper News of the World. As the scandal spread, News Corp. immediately drew public ire, and soon came under legal investigation by the British government.
Rupert Murdoch issued an apology and disclaimed any knowledge of the outrageous activities of some of his 53,000 worldwide employees. With pressure still mounting, he took the drastic step of closing the 168-year-old News of the World, which enjoyed a healthy circulation of 2.6 million readers per week, reports Reuters.
Even this bold action has not quelled public criticism. Because of Murdoch’s decades-long connections to politicians in both the United Kingdom and the United States, many have questioned the ethics of yielding such power to an organization so aggressive.
Murdoch testified under oath Tuesday before the House of Commons. He repeated his apology and declared it “the most humble day of my life,” according to AFP. Additionally, his chief deputy, Rebekah Brooks, who was fired in the fallout, testified before Parliament and apologized as well.
This incident is a reminder of the dangers of muck-racking journalism. Though media outlets have evolved, cutthroat competition to scoop rivals has always existed on both sides of the Atlantic. When that goal overwhelms journalists, history reveals wayward investigators may seek to create the story rather than just report.
I believe the proliferation of online journalism heightens risks for both reporters and readers. The News of the World scandal shows how easily editorial control can become lax. Since digital print is an even more powerful tool than its ink and paper forefathers, words on the Internet can also accomplish more damage if based on untruthful or illegal sources.
In the digital age, readers can expect such aggressiveness from smaller organizations seeking to grow their brand-name. The Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998 accomplished just that for the then unknown reporting of Matt Drudge. However, as each digital news group becomes a more powerful forum, editors and readers alike must demand holding to professional ethics of journalism.
As a result, a company the size of News Corp. must have oversight procedures in place to prevent incidents as phone hacking. Though readers need to be more cautious in their sources, by nature readers put trust in what they view. Ultimately, editorial control must tame the instinct to scoop by any means.
If organizations like News Corp fail, sure, they will still enjoy temporary headlines. However, when the inevitable fallout comes, much like Rupert Murdoch, it will be the disgraced journalists who become the headlines.