I’ve been waiting to hear “the word” ever since News Corp’s phone-hacking scandal erupted. And I finally heard it on a National Public Radio broadcast just a few days ago. Someone uttered the “E” word. That’s “E,” as in ethics – specifically media ethics.
That the media – in particular Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World – acted unethically in their phone tapping is clear. Few would consider such tactics, even if legal, to constitute acceptable investigative reporting methods. It’s also clear that Scotland Yard sullied its reputation by cozying up to News Corp journalists. And is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t think Britain’s politicians have for decades turned collective blind eyes to the nation’s tabloid misconduct?
Such unethical breaches in the United Kingdom have been legion and long standing, and there’s blood on the hands of members of the press, police and politicians alike.
But there’s another party sharing the blame, equally and perhaps more so than do all the others, and that would be the public – you and me. Had a portion of Murdoch’s media empire not managed to attract readers with it’s sexually suggestive and titillating photos and content, the Australian media mogul would long ago have shuttered, or not purchased, his stable of sleazy publications. It’s not as if the British news-media public didn’t have choices; everything from the British Broadcasting Corporation to the Financial Times to the Independent to the Guardian.
That’s not to say that Murdoch has not left his mark on holdings such as the Times (London), which few would any more call by its f
ormer nickname, “the Thunderer,” as this storied newspaper has steadily moved down-market since it became a News Corp. product. And Murdoch’s media often reflect a far right-wing political agenda, whether it be Fox Cable or the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, both of which help fractionalize the American public into debilitating political camps.
It’s justified to cast stones at Murdoch’s empire and Scotland Yard and the British Parliament for promoting sleazy reporting tactics, pandering to the public’s basest interests, and politicizing the press to the detriment of the public. Indeed brickbats rather than stones might be appropriate as the actions of members of all these institutions threaten the very fabric of a nation’s democracy.
And yes, there are a number of media accountability tools that we can and should employ to help keep the media ethical and accountable. Such a media accountability toolbox includes ethics codes, critics, journalism reviews, ombudsmen, news councils, and pubic/civic journalism initiatives.
But as we rifle through this tool box, let’s also ask what we ourselves are buying, watching and reading – and thus how much we all are responsible for Murdoch’s monumental media muckup.
It’s more than ironic to think that some 40 years ago Walt Kelly’s character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us” — at about the same time Rupert Murdoch was launching his media empire.
William A. Babcock is senior ethics professor and deputy director at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s School of Journalism, and editor of Gateway Journalism News (gatewayjr.org).