The scale of the storm ravaging the UK media should not be underestimated. One newspaper – the country’s best-selling Sunday tabloid no less – has already been swept away in a manner so sudden that editors in London neither saw it coming nor are any the wiser now as to who the next victim will be. There’s speculation the scandal could claim the scalp of the mightiest man in all the world’s media: Rupert Murdoch himself.
Bagehot in the Economist calls it “an earthquake” caused by a “truly astonishing cascade of revelations.” After the MPs expenses scandal and the crisis that brought the banks to their knees, “the ground is about to shift again under the British establishment,” Bagehot writes.
The BBC’s Paul Mason elaborates on the seismic events in the UK media landscape, claiming “this one goes to the heart of the way this country has been run, under both parties, for decades.” The political parties have for so long cosied up to Murdoch; Mason describes him as something of a “Wizard of Oz” figure, one that politicians are frightened of due to his perceived ability to bring down governments and wreck political aspirations with a headline. This claim, while arguable, has been made before, even by Murdoch’s own publication The Sun which once boasted on its front page after an election “It Woz The Sun Wot Won It.” The political class is now falling over itself to break as publicly as possible with the press. If they are serious about that break, says Mason, “then it will signal – without a single law being passed – a major change in the country’s de-facto constitution.” He compares what is happening in the UK now, thanks in part to new social media, to what happened in Egypt and Tunisia at the start of this year.
One solid analysis of the power of the tabloid press in Britain comes from Canada and the Ottawa Citizen. In it, historian John Sainsbury goes some way to explaining the bond between Britons and their newspapers, a bond which promotes media moguls like Murdoch to “a shaman-like status credited with the ability to both fathom and manipulate public opinion.”
The state of British politics after this storm is also the object of much excited debate, and not just in Britain. Writing for America’s CNN, Robin Oakley contends that the effects on politics, as well as the media, will be “profound.” The judgement of British Prime Minister David Cameron has been found to be lacking: the man he appointed as head of communication, Andy Coulson, has been arrested because of his alleged role in the phone hacking affair. Cameron has also enjoyed what Oakley calls “a chummy social relationship” with the woman who runs Murdoch’s UK newspaper operation, Rebekah Brooks. For Oakley, Cameron has looked “slow and reluctant” and the News of the World’s sudden execution could be “ the moment at which the electorate began to lose faith in Cameron.”
But should anyone outside of the UK care? Well, yes. Anyone who reads newspapers, watches TV news and votes is concerned. Not least Americans. Murdoch owns Fox News, the right-wing Republican party mouthpiece as well as 27 local Fox stations across the country with a reach of 100 million households. And impartial it ain’t. He owns the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. He owns the film studio 20th Century Fox. If his employees in Britain are found to have broken laws in order to break news, what’s to say their American counterparts might not do the same? Or their antipodean colleagues at The Australian?
US senator and head of the Senate Commerce Committee Jay Rockefeller is asking himself and others in Congress that very question. He has called for News Corporation to be investigated in the US. “I am concerned that the admitted phone hacking in London by the News Corp. may have extended to 9/11 victims or other Americans. If they did, the consequences would be severe,” he has said. And what if?
Newspapers in Canada like The Vancouver Sun are wondering whether the Murdoch empire will crumble. After all, the words ‘too big to fail’ have sounded hollow in recent years. The Boston-based Atlantic is even taking an early look at who could replace Murdoch, should the unsinkable sink.