The Fall of Murdoch

Friday, 15 July 2011

The fall of Rupert Murdoch has taken place not because of government ministers, the police, or other such figures in authority positions. It resulted as a consequence, quite astonishingly, of relentless muckraking on the part of excellent journalists who smelled a rat and followed its trail.

It is a truly fascinating moment – a watershed of some kind. We are now witnessing the same politicians who have cowered in Murdoch’s dark shadow for decades clamber over eachother to fire criticism in his direction. There is an undeniable stench about it – and perhaps just as the rotten core of News International has been exposed, so too has the spinelessness of the Westminster establishment.

No matter how it happened, however, the important thing is that it has happened. No longer will Murdoch be able to wield his all-pervasive influence on British politics. There will be no more backdoor meetings, friendly lunches and lavish parties: those days are over.

So the key question is now, where next? The investigation in to the full extent of the phone hacking – and its culture – could take months, more likely years. Over 3000 suspected victims have still to be contacted and there can be no doubt some of the worst revelations are yet to come.

Though amid the heightened climate of hysteria, it is important to keep a cool head. There must be a reasoned debate about how journalism, particularly tabloid journalism, can move forward after this ugly chapter. George Monbiot’s proposed introduction of a Hippocratic Oath for Journalists is a strong starting point.

There is a definite danger that politicians – with the broad support of the wider public – will attempt to impose new regulatory powers upon the press. This is a cause for concern. It is not in dispute that the self-regulating Press Complaints Commission (PCC) failed spectacularly on a number of levels throughout the duration of the hacking saga. (In a 2009 report, for instance, the PCC found "no new evidence to suggest that the practice of phone message tapping was undertaken by others beyond Goodman and Mulcaire" and dismissed the Guardian's coverage as "dramatic".) But it is not a given that the PCC should be scrapped altogether, as many, including prime minister David Cameron, have suggested.

Wholesale statutory regulation would dangerously inhibit freedom of the press, and we must remember that the print media is already bound by many laws (the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act, Defamation law etc.). It was a toxic, profit-crazed, scoop-obsessed culture at the News of the World that resulted in endemic phone hacking – not a lack of strong legislation.

This is where the discussion should begin. It is a bonus that after so many years there now seems to be, suddenly and without precedent, a broad consensus on the need for some kind of media reform. Every party and almost every politician is for once in agreement: as Murdoch’s empire crashes to the ground, it's time to build something new from the rubble.

This article originally appeared as part of openDemocracy's forum on the fall of Murdoch: