News Corp. rips open Pandora's box

19 Jul 2011

If a week is a long time in politics, try being a journalist.

During the five days I managed to down keyboard and hit Scotland in time for our two days of summer, News Corp. appears to have imploded over a hacking scandal dating back over the past decade or so. The past week has seen the closure of one of the UK’s oldest newspapers, and the resignation and arrest of several senior News Corp executives.

Roll the clock back a week and the whole thing seemed to be a cleverly orchestrated political attempt to prevent Rupert Murdoch’s firm taking full control of UK broadcaster BSkyB. While the take over had already been green lighted by the government News Corp has now ditched the attempt after it emerged that the hacking of voicemail and e-mail was an endemic practice at the now-closed News of the World.

When that story first broke a couple of years ago, there was little outrage because the targets appeared to be high-profile public figures and royalty. The past fortnight, though, has seen allegations that the hacking went much further – delving into the voicemail of a missing schoolgirl, soldiers and victims of the London bombings in 2005.

Murdoch is taking the scandal so seriously he has flown into the country, and will tomorrow face a parliamentary committee to answer questions about the affair. However, the story has already changed from one of defending his company to defending his position in the company.

In a turn of events almost Shakespearean in tone, Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth is now reportedly challenging her father's and brother's – James – positions in News Corp. She argues the pair have damaged the brand and that it’s now time to go.

So, in the space of less than seven days, the whole matter has gone from a clever political campaign to stymie Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to tighten his hold on the UK media to one of internal squabbling that could ultimately change the way News Corp. is run.

Whichever way the story ends, you can be sure there will be lots written about media plurality over the next few weeks, and a potential longer-term political backlash against journalism standards and press freedom.

Let’s hope in the midst of all that someone addresses how the phones were hacked in the first place.

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