As I watch the fall of the House of Murdoch, for the first time in two decades I feel good about being a journalist again.
I became a journalist when it was still an honorable profession—immediately after the days of Woodward and Bernstein. I saw the immense influence of the press as it should be, as a Fourth Estate, with the power to bring down a corrupt presidency. To be a reporter, I believed, was to act as the conscience of the nation.
I was attracted to the job because I believed that journalists had a weighty responsibility – to delve behind the lies and the pap of establishments and governments. We had to weigh our facts, wrestle with our consciences; one false stroke could unfairly destroy a person's life. It was our job to uphold fundamental human rights. And the most fundamental human right of all was the right of the public to know the truth about the establishments with the greatest power over us – the government, medicine, the police.
The art of the dumb
Under the Murdoch regime, investigative journalism began to mean something very different. It became a dumbed-down art, an extension of the gossip column, focused entirely revealing the private lives of royalty or celebrity. And inevitably, the moral stance adopted for this kind of reporting – that anything was fair game so long as it sold newspapers – provided a kind of catch-all justification obtaining information in any fashion, even illegally hacking phones for prurient details about murdered teenagers.
Beyond creating a journalism of titillation (it was Murdoch, after all, who began the topless Page 3 Girl du Jour in the Sun), Murdoch also created a press whose job was primarily defense and maintenance of the status quo.
Over the past week, as the incredible events have unfolded – the arrest of one of the highest level New International employees, the resignation of both the UK’s highest police chief and his deputy, the questioning by government of both Murdoch and his son James – it’s also been revealed just how far the press breached its mandate as the watchdog of the public interest.
In bed with the enemy
Murdoch and his senior management were courted by governments of both parties. Murdoch employees paid off the police for illegal access to phone numbers. Phone-hacking, even bribery, became business as usual. Indeed, it became acceptable, even desirable, for journalists themselves to become primary defenders of the status quo. In the UK, there is only a single newspaper editor left who refuses to dine with politicians.
Consider, for instance, the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield was a well-respected British gastroenterologist who began to notice something suspicious among the many children presenting at his clinic with the same gut symptoms and symptoms of autism. The single common denominator among these cases is that symptoms had developed immediately after the children had been given their measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Wakefield courageously published a cautious study of his findings.
After take up the MMR naturally fell in the controversy about the vaccine, the appropriate response of a true Fourth Estate press wedded to defending the public interest would have been to thoroughly investigate the MMR and the companies that produced the drugs.
Under Murdoch, the whistleblower himself came under attack. The Sunday Times stalked Wakefield tirelessly until his research was discredited and he publicly drawn and quartered – and eventually stripped of his medical license.
James Murdoch, chief executive of News Corporation and ultimate publisher of the Sunday Times, happens to be on the board of GlaxoSmithKline, which happens to produce Priorix, one of the MMR jabs.
With the rise of the Murdoch empire, the idea of the press as the watchdog of the public interest became passé. As Maggie Smith’s octogenarian Wendy declares in the movie Hook to Robin Williams’ grown up Peter Pan, on hearing that his job is now to strip assets from defunct companies: ‘So, Peter, you've become a pirate.’
You’ve now become one of them.
The end of the affair
As we watch one after another major institution fall, this signals to me yet more evidence that we have reached the natural end point of our current mindset of selfishness and greed.
In the fall of the largest media empire we’ve ever known, we’re observing nature’s process of self-correction at work. Newspapers like Murdoch’s have been finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat. All of us realize that we have allowed shadenfreude – delight in another’s misery - to become our daily bread.
Presently, via the internet, we are witnessing new decentralized journalism reclaim its position as the guardian of human rights – one that recognizes the true power of the written word — to uplift, to enlighten and ultimately to transform – and its own job to protect the public, and not the pirates.
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