The News of the World phone hacking scandal has become a juggernaut, crashing through the once unassailable walls of Rupert Murdoch’s empire of influence and power. What started in 2009 as a case of celebrity maltreatment garnering little serious attention outside media ethics classes was instantly transformed the moment it was revealed the same tactics had been used on a 13-year-old murder victim – not only listening to her messages, but deleting them to clear space so more could be added, leading the family and police to believe the girl may still have been alive.
Public outrage in Britain was swift and thunderous. News International, the subsidiary operating News Corporation’s UK media assets, moved with almost equal speed to contain the damage and minimise the fallout. They took the unprecedented step of shutting the 168 year old publication—the highest selling newspaper in the country—and gave away advertising in the final edition to “good causes“, as well as donating almost 75 per cent of the cover price divvied up between three charities.
All of which failed to ring-fence the issue and contain it to the News of the World. The contagion had already spread to the parent company, killing it’s bid for full ownership of BSkyB and taking scalps both within and without of News Corporation. Nine arrests have been made, two senior members of Scotland Yard have resigned, and PM David Cameron has become embroiled over both his personal relationships with the Murdoch and former News International executive Rebekah Brooks and the hiring of former editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary.
Up is down and black is white for the once all-powerful Murdoch. The former political king-maker can’t seem to find a friend at the moment. Once silent politicians—buoyed by public sentiment—are lining up to issue stern and public rebuke’s (and distance themselves) from the media empire and it’s ageing mogul. On the business side, institutional shareholders are threatening to sue and calls are being made to split the dual chairman and chief executive role currently held by Murdoch. Ex-members of the News Corp stable are lining up for their confessions, stating they knew all along something wasn’t right.
After his appearance before the House of Commons Media, Culture and Sports select committee there was no shortage of commentary on the fundamental power shift that has occurred. Many saw a picture of a boss far more hands off, wielding far less influence over his asset’s editorial content than conventional wisdom had hitherto accepted.
As Jon Stewart pointed on last week on The Daily Show, Murdoch has had “the run of the planet” for several decades.
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But has this incident really changed anybody’s beliefs, or merely given politicians the courage (and cover) to say what they’ve always felt? Are the times really changing, or are we just more comfortable acknowledging the reality of our surroundings?