Murdoch fallout tests press freedom

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2012, 12:00am


The media wear many hats, some of them seemingly trite, others essential for society's well-being. Whenever it is perceived as having failed its job, the media's most important right, press freedom, comes into question. That has been the case with the lambasting of Rupert Murdoch by British lawmakers, whose damning report of a long-running phone-hacking scandal has found him unfit to lead his international media empire. Inevitably, their conclusion has been accompanied by calls for greater media accountability.

Murdoch is a controversial figure, not so much for what he says - he keeps a low profile - but for what his newspapers and television channels do. Detractors abound about the sensationalism of his tabloids and a blatant political agenda. The parliamentary committee's inquiry uncovered an apparently criminal side to his British newspaper operations, with the voice mails of dozens of people, among them celebrities, sports stars and politicians, hacked in pursuit of stories. The fallout for the media chief's British operations, News International, has been immense. Readers have lost trust, millions of pounds have been paid out to settle lawsuits, a string of senior executives have lost their jobs, at least 25 past and present employees have been arrested and the highly-profitable 168-year-old News of the World was closed.

Police chiefs were also forced to resign, embroiled in allegations that officers turned a blind eye to hacking complaints. Politicians are also involved, the power of Murdoch's papers being such that he can make or break governments. But while he has personally come under fire and the reputation of his papers has been tarnished, the practices of the media in general have also come under scrutiny.

There are calls to clip its wings, but it would be wrong to legislate where self-regulation is all that is needed. It was the checks and balances provided by a free media that uncovered the hacking, after all; the same facets that keep governments, officials and companies honest. Lawbreakers and those freedoms are clearly separate matters.