Commentary Magazine


Topic: News of the World

Is a Government Entitled to Say Who is Fit to Run a Media Company?

The hacking scandal at the British newspapers owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch has transfixed the English press in the last year and become a major political issue. So it’s not surprising that the parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the matter would seek to heap opprobrium on Murdoch for the various sins committed by his employees in the cause of digging up dirt on the famous and not so famous who became the subject of notoriety. If laws were broken then, as would be the case in the United States, the chips must fall were they may and the guilty brought to book. But the committee’s published conclusions about the scandal went beyond that. In its report, the committee stated that Murdoch was “not a fit person” to run an international media conglomerate.

Murdoch is an easy person to dislike. His unparalleled success in publishing and broadcast media is unprecedented and widely envied. He is identified (not always correctly) with the political right and therefore is considered an enemy of all that is good by the political left, especially those in the media who dislike his visionary decision to create outlets where the traditional liberal consensus will not predominate. But even if one were to agree with those who think his influence on the industry pernicious and his politics odious, how can anyone, especially in the media, regard the attempt by some in the British parliament to determine who can and who cannot own a media company?

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The hacking scandal at the British newspapers owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch has transfixed the English press in the last year and become a major political issue. So it’s not surprising that the parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the matter would seek to heap opprobrium on Murdoch for the various sins committed by his employees in the cause of digging up dirt on the famous and not so famous who became the subject of notoriety. If laws were broken then, as would be the case in the United States, the chips must fall were they may and the guilty brought to book. But the committee’s published conclusions about the scandal went beyond that. In its report, the committee stated that Murdoch was “not a fit person” to run an international media conglomerate.

Murdoch is an easy person to dislike. His unparalleled success in publishing and broadcast media is unprecedented and widely envied. He is identified (not always correctly) with the political right and therefore is considered an enemy of all that is good by the political left, especially those in the media who dislike his visionary decision to create outlets where the traditional liberal consensus will not predominate. But even if one were to agree with those who think his influence on the industry pernicious and his politics odious, how can anyone, especially in the media, regard the attempt by some in the British parliament to determine who can and who cannot own a media company?

In making such a statement, the narrow majority of the committee that voted to approve the report (It passed by a vote of 6-4 with Labor and Liberal Democrat members voting in favor and Conservatives opposed), have taken this issue beyond any wrongdoing committed at the now-shuttered News of the World owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation. Though the leaders of the company may have failed to act to stop illegal wiretapping and other scurrilous practices, for a government committee to seek to force Murdoch to leave his position at the top of the company he founded is an abuse of power that is no less sinister than anything Murdoch may have done or not done.

The implications of this statement go beyond a mere committee report. Blowback from the scandal forced the Murdoch family to withdraw a bid for control of a satellite broadcast outlet. And by seeking to tie British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to the scandal, it’s clear that there is more at work here than a disturbing case of media misbehavior. The goal of much of the left-wing media from the start of this scandal has not been to focus on what were once quite common if arguably criminal actions undertaken by tabloid press outlets that would stop at nothing to get gossip or news about celebrities or those involved in crimes that interested the public. Rather, the objective from the start has been to get Murdoch and to drive him out of the media.

Whatever crimes were committed or mistakes made at his company, it is fairly obvious that Murdoch knows what he is doing in the media business. If the day comes when he, his family or other members of his management team are no longer capable of doing their jobs, we assume that, as in the rest of the real world not controlled by politicians, they will either be forced out by stockholders or driven out of the business by more successful competitors. That is the essence of free enterprise and an open marketplace.

But as much as the public is entitled to be outraged at the News of the World’s misbehavior, the idea that the British parliament or any group of politicians can attempt to determine how private companies operate is abhorrent. It speaks to a desire by many on the left to control the media and to restrict freedom of speech to those who agree with them rather than their opponents. That totalitarian impulse is at the heart of the Murdoch lynch mob. Any journalist, be they on the left or the right, should regard this tendency with horror and utterly condemn it.

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