Thu, Jul 14, 2011 - Page 9 News List

In the UK, a tabloid scandal was exposed by solid journalism

The phone-hacking scandal has shown that newspapers still do have a purposeful and profound role, provided they are not part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire

By David Carr  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

The phone-hacking scandal that is mushrooming in the UK, with arrests, skullduggery and influence peddling, would be a delicious story for the News of the World if it were not about the newspaper itself. Instead, the hunter became the hunted, and last Thursday Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp summarily slid the 168-year-old News of the World under a double-decker bus. Its final issue was on Sunday.

In the US, newspapers have been seen as an expensive hobby for Murdoch, the bane of News Corp’s shareholders, but as it turns out, the newspapers in the UK may end up being more costly to him in the long run.

So useful in wielding influence, if not producing revenues, his newspapers are the very thing that brought his company into the cross hairs, and delayed, at least temporarily, his efforts to expand it by gaining full control of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), the largest pay television company in the UK.

Logic and fairness would suggest that it was folly to concentrate so much power in the hands of someone who already controlled many national media assets. So where was the outrage?

Well, check who owns the megaphone. News Corp has historically used its four newspapers — it also owns the Sun, the Times of London and the Sunday Times — to shape and quash public debate, routinely helping to elect prime ministers with timely endorsements, while punishing enemies at every turn.

Do not take my word for it. After British Prime Minister David Cameron was elected, one of the first visitors he received at 10 Downing Street was Murdoch — discreetly through a back entrance — and Cameron spoke plainly last week about the corrosively close relationship.

“The truth is, we’ve all been in this together,” he said. “The press, the politicians and leaders of all parties.”

To which a dumb Yank like me might say: “Duh.”

The only thing Cameron did not do was point to Murdoch himself. However, he did not really have to after the tactical ruthlessness of Murdoch’s familiars was laid bare for all to see.

Newspapers, as anybody will tell you, are not what they used to be. Part of the reason that News Corp was willing to close down a paper with a circulation of about 2.7 million copies every Sunday was that its revenues were under US$1 billion. (News Corp’s heir apparent, James Murdoch, has always seemed eager to shed some of the company’s newspapers, though I doubt that putting the nail gun to this paper was what he had in mind.)

Still, how did we find out that a British tabloid was hacking thousands of voicemails of private citizens? Not from the British government, with its wan, inconclusive investigations, but from other newspapers.

Think of it. There was Murdoch, tying on a napkin and ready to dine on the other 60 percent of BSkyB that he did not already have. However, just as he was about to swallow yet another tasty morsel, the hands at his throat belonged to, yes, newspaper journalists.

Newspapers, it turns out, are still powerful things and not just in the way that Murdoch has historically deployed them.

The Guardian stayed on the phone-hacking story like a dog on a meat bone, acting very much in the British tradition of a crusading press and goosing the story back to life after years of dormancy. Other papers, including the New York Times, reported executive and police complicity that gave the lie to the company’s “few bad apples” explanation. As recently as last week, Vanity Fair broke stories about police complicity.

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