The shock and horror of the British public over the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World is palpable. The British public may have had little sympathy with media-courting celebrities who has the boundaries of their privacy broken – but news that murder victims phones were hacked has justly provoked outrage and disgust against the tabloid.
I am not going to delve too deep into condemning the actions of News International, that pool is already murky enough and our Labour Leader is doing a fine job of fronting proper criticism and putting pressure on Mr Cameron to get his act together in dealing with this issue.
I would, however, like to talk about what this indicates of some very worrying trends in the global media market. The Murdoch empire has once again shown that it is fundamentally just too powerful. In controlling so many media outlets Murdoch was able to dictate the outcome of elections, deluge the public consciousness with his opinions and, it is now clear, force all politicians to be beholden to him to the extent where they were afraid even to try to uncover illegal activities within his company.
This situation is not unique to the UK. Consider for example Italy where Berlusconi not only runs the country but also maintains a national media monopoly. Unsurprisingly, media coverage in Italy is overwhelmingly more Berlusconi-friendly than in the rest of the world. Italian politics now takes place within Berlusconi’s fishbowl, the walls of which distort and dim even the most lurid of the Prime Minister’s activities and those of his associates.
There are a multiplicity of problems incurred by such media monopolies. It means that the public is not afforded the option of a variety of opinions and viewpoints. Public opinion is as much informed by the media as the media is guided by it; restricting the diversity of media opinions leads to a warping of public debate. In the case of news outlets such as Fox this can stray into the territory of the deliberately misleading and the propagation of actual untruths.
The News of the World has closed but this should not be the end of the story. At any rate the closure of the NOTW was as much a market-based decision as a political appeaser: Its mass desertion by advertisers rendered the tabloid unsustainable. Instead this should initiate a rethink of how the media should be run within the UK and elsewhere. Allowing certain companies to achieve monopolies within the media not only leads to corruption, it is harmful to democracy. A healthy media requires a plurality of voices and opinions, free to report and express but that can also be regulated in order to prevent slander and malpractice. If the News of the World crisis teaches us anything it is that the British media has become divorced from its purpose. We must find a way to get it back on track.