Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful media mogul in the English-speaking world, can't take the heat, so he is getting out of the kitchen. Or so he thinks. In the wake of the revelations that his staff has chronically engaged in criminal phone-hacking, he has shut down News of the World, one of the largest-circulating Sunday newspapers in the world. This is tantamount to the New York Times ceasing publication after Jayson Blair's plagiarism was revealed.
Happily, this preemptive attempt to "take the heat off" — as the punditry class is now spinning the action — will not work, simply for this reason: Any business person who shuts down a cash cow (with a paid circulation of 6 million!) does not do it on an impulse just because people are saying mean things. To borrow a Murdochian cliché, where there's smoke there's fire. Indeed, this looks more like Murdoch's desperate attempt to hide the criminality of his entire enterprise. It may even lead to the demise of British Prime Minister David Cameron's political career. After all, Cameron hired as his press secretary Andy Coulson, a News of the World editor at the center of the phone-hacking scandal who was arrested last week.
This whole sordid drama makes Jayson Blair seem like a bit player from a forgotten movie. The scandal it most resembles is the Abu Ghraib prison torture in 2004. Cast your mind back to that shameful moment in American history, when staged photographs of nude human pyramids, forced masturbations, dog attacks and other assorted humiliations surfaced. As you may recall, the entire U.S. officer class closed ranks and the whole mess was blamed on low-rung dirtbags like Lynndie England and Charles Graner and a few other losers. The prison's commanding officer was "reprimanded" while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. Iraq commander, all kept their jobs.
The same scenario will no doubt be tried by the Joint Chiefs of Murdoch. Already, News of the World staffers Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman have been jailed for the phone hacking. Murdoch may hope these warm bodies will sate investigators, but it's not likely. The phone hacking has gone on far longer than the torture at Abu Ghraib. Recent revelations indicate that Murdoch's staff hacked into the phones of murder victims' and dead soldiers' families. With such flagrant violations spread over several years, someone in the Murdoch family had to have known this was going on and even tacitly approved it (by not stopping it).
How do we know, therefore, that the phone hacking ends with News of the World? We don't, of course. Murdoch's News Corporation empire comprises some of the world's most influential media outlets, including the Fox Network, Wall Street Journal,New York Post, the Times of London, several lucrative websites (including a chunk of MySpace), and a nearly uncountable number of other tabloids in the U.K., Australia and the U.S.
In a more general sense, this phone hacking scandal is just the tiniest piece of the puzzle that has, in the last three decades, transformed Western media from a place that at least play-acted at ethical journalism into a fractious, divisive, purely partisan mix-master of anger, lies, propaganda, fear, fulminations and just plain nonsense presented as truth. All courtesy of the trend-setting Rupert Murdoch who began his assault in the 1970s, after buying up nearly every newspaper in Australia and moving on to the England and the U.S.
Murdoch is responsible for the poison that has been injected into American journalism. And, like a computer virus of the mind, Murdoch's right-wing, rule-breaking and irresponsible worldview has infected every outlet of news and opinion in the known world.
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