The Real Danger Posed by Rupert Murdoch
By Alex Gross
Author, The Untold Sixties
By Alex Gross
Author, The Untold Sixties
Many Americans may not fully understand what role Rupert Murdoch's News of the World played in English life and why its departure is so long overdue. In the same way many Americans may not fully understand what role Murdoch's
Fox News has played in our own country. Nor how remarkably similar, despite all the seeming differences,
these two invasions into our national lives have been.
Let's start by explaining how News of the World looked on
a typical English newsstand. Americans are accustomed to seeing the weekly National Enquirer and its imitators on sale, but on almost all newsstands they will be found in their own section, away from genuine newspapers. Or perhaps we'll see them only at our supermarket checkout counters. Yes, we certainly know the Enquirer exists, but we also know that it's not the same as a real newspaper.
Not so in England. On British newsstands News of the World regularly appeared in the very same place as genuine Sunday newspapers, right next to them, on the very same bench as The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Sunday Times. But the last three can at least lay claim to being legitimate newspapers (though Murdoch now owns even the Sunday Times). But News of the World was alway filled with photos of near-naked women and celebrity gossip to an extent that might make even the editors of the National Enquirer blush.
Nor did it sit alone on that bench, right next to where it lay you'll still find The People, remarkably similar in tone, along with the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Mail, only slightly less offensive.
Some of this may come as a shock to many Americans. That's because over the years a unique kind of love-hate relationship has grown up between Britain and the US. It's also because the two nations, even though they share a language and centuries of history, are so different in so many ways. I grew up only too familiar with this relationship in an Anglo-American family, with my American mother constantly at odds with my British father and my very British half-sister.
This love-hate has always been based on a special kind of
unrealism, on the notion, shared by many Americans and Britons alike, that the British are somehow more sophisticated and cultivated than Americans, that they
manage affairs in more tactful and dignified ways than Americans do. Even though this view has been jolted in
recent years by the emergence of obscenity-shouting,
beer-swilling footballers, this comparison still hangs on
in many quarters.
The entire News of the World affair is likely to jolt this image even further out of focus. There's nothing wrong with a bit of sensuality in the news, even a bit of ribaldry. Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous American journalists, clearly enjoyed his more sensual side and even wrote about how to manage a mistress, but he was also a scientist, a diplomat, and an astute politician.
Franklin himself actually worked as a reporter and wrote
perfectly straight news stories on crime, legal matters, and
natural disasters. He understood the difference between
neutral reporting and sensual titillation. As surprising as it
may be to Americans, much of English journalism has failed
to observe this difference and has long sought a lower level
than its American counterpart.
Not just Murdoch's papers but much of the English press has
featured a rough he-man's view, favoring simplistic notions
of society, politics, and sex. Far too much of English journalism has always been less concerned with Benjamin
Franklin than with Benny Hill.
Murdoch was clever enough to recognize that this view of
journalism could not enjoy the same success in America. But
he has come as close as possible to achieving the same goal.
At Fox News he has merely adapted the very same approach
with remarkably few changes. Here too simplistic notions of
society, politics, and sex are the rule, while the appeal to the
he-man mindset is only too evident in the TV personalities
of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Both broadcasters make no secret of their tough-guy approach to world politics. They are constantly urging their
audience to suppose that US and foreign events are easy to
understand, so easy that their audience can readily grasp
them and are certain to agree with O'Reilly and Hannity on
Most important, just as constant lies and cover-ups have
been the rule during the English scandal, deep, vast, and
unending lies have saturated Fox from the very outset.
O'Reilly, Hannity, and everyone on the channel have never
stopped intoning the whopper that Fox is "fair and
balanced," even though some of their own newscasters have
conceded that it mainly serves as a mouthpiece for the right
wing of the Republican Party.
Not to mention the continual Fox claim that "We Report,
You Decide," when in fact they have already decided what
audience members are meant to decide. They continually
impose their stamp of what reality is supposed to be for
Americans just as surely as News of the World has done for
Almost all Americans are well aware that Fox was largely
responsible for the birth of the so-called "Tea Party," that
they actually nursed and incited its growth at every turn,
culminating in the recent off-year election. Most of the
members of this party are clearly ignorant of history,
geography, economics, and science, they are swayed by
simplistic faith-based beliefs dictated to them by Fox News.
Just as News of the World has been guilty of breaking the
law in England, so Fox News has played so fast and loose
with journalistic standards in the US that there are grounds
for believing it has set out to undermine and destroy the
guarantees for freedom of the press enshrined in the
Thomas Jefferson was so deeply concerned that the
Constitution should protect freedom of the press that he
persuaded James Madison to compose the "Bill of Rights."
He went even further when he wrote: "Were it left to me to
decide whether we should have a government without
newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should
not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
In other words, he assumed that our newspapers were in
most cases likely to be less corrupt than out governments.
But Jefferson could not foresee radio, TV, or the Internet,
and he clearly could not conceive of what we find today: a
consortium of press and other media even more corrupt than
government itself, bent on reducing government to its own
level of corruption.
This is the real threat facing society today in the US, the
UK, and elsewhere. Dealing with this threat will take time
and will require all the patience and wisdom our
governments can muster.