The Politics Of Phone Hacking

The scandal that took down the British Tabloid News Of The World is still raging on, and a lot of people who hate Rupert Murdoch and his media empire are still frothing at the chance that this just might take him down, too. They are endlessly talking about it, and wondering why conservatives aren’t doing the same.Well, not really — they say they are wondering, but the “know” the answer — we’re all puppets of Rupert’s who are doing all we can to cover up and minimize the mess at the bidding of our lord and master.


That’s a load of codswallop, of course, but it entertains them and lets them score points with each other.


I’ve been peripherally aware of the whole mess, and here’s what I have picked up: several employees of the News Of The World figured out that they could get some very juicy scoops if they hacked into the cell phone accounts of very prominent people and eavesdropped on their voice mail, kept track of their locations, and whatnot. This grew the most egregious when they got into the voice mail of a missing teenage girl. The girl’s mailbox was overflowing, and the reporters — eager for more clues and scoops — deleted some of the older, less interesting messages. This gave the family false hope, as they thought the girl was accessing her phone. She was already dead at this point, as was revealed when her body was discovered.


That was the most vile example, but hardly the only one. Other victims included actors, celebrities, politicians, and members of the royal family.


When it was uncovered, Murdoch gave the paper the “death penalty” — he shut it down entirely. Several now former employees are facing criminal charges, as well as some folks who had been higher up in the Murdoch empire.


What are the political implications of this whole mess? Not that much.


First up, there wasn’t anything particularly political in the scandal. There was no partisan agenda. It was purely sensationalism, purely looking for scoops and readership. It’s been common knowledge that the British tabloids are among the most unscrupulous, sleaziest, underhanded, and downright vile representatives of journalism in the civilized world for decades now. This is all that just taken to a vile extreme.


Next, there’s little evidence that this was part of an overarching strategy. Murdoch owns several tabloids; if the corporation was behind this tactic, one would expect that it would have been used at more than one paper. Instead, it was apparently just the News Of The World — which is what we would expect if they were the only ones who knew just what they were doing. At that level, the News employees would see other Murdoch tabloids not as colleagues, but as rivals — and this phone hacking gave them an edge over them in the internecine corporate warfare. They’d be fools to allow such an advantage slip away from them.


To lay the whole mess at the feet of NewsCorp is — at least at this point — ridiculous. It would be like impeaching President Obama over the whole Gunwalker scandal.


OK, that’s a bad example. In the case of Gunrunner, there is strong evidence that the malfeasance was known and approved of outside the original agency (BATFE), and there was a strong political aspect to the mess — it seems almost custom-made to advance the gun control agenda, and ties in with Obama’s statement that he was working on gun control “under the radar.” Plus, the media that is hyping the News Of The World scandal is doing all it can to ignore Gunrunner.


Let’s try that again. It would be like impeaching Obama over the Fort Hood shootings. In that case, there is no sign of malfeasance (well, dereliction of duty) outside a small part of the Obama administration (the Army’s bureaucracy, part of the Department of Defense), no real political agenda behind it, and indications that the matter is being handled appropriately.


Another interesting aspect of the News Of The World case is that it is being pushed extremely aggressively by the BBC. That’s the same BBC that is 1) a major rival to Murdoch’s media empire, which has been beating the pants off them in competition, and B) owned by the British government. Imagine if Media Matters’ “war on Fox News” was being waged by CNN and MSNBC, which were subsidiaries of NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Further, a major portion of the BBC’s funding comes from a “television tax,” where merely owning a TV subjects the owner to paying an annual tax that goes directly to the BBC — even if you never actually watch any of the BBC’s shows.


So, in brief, there’s no indication at this point that the scandal reaches beyond the News Of The World, which has been shut down. The matter is still being investigated, and that could change.


Until it does, though, it’s worth noting who’s piling on to this mess has a great deal to gain in pushing the mess as far as they can — and very, very little evidence at this point to back up their smears.


Especially Media Matters — whose tax-exempt status is based on the goal of “exposing and countering conservative misinformation in the (American) press.” The apolitical sleaziness of a now-defunct British tabloid doesn’t fit that very well. But they’re pretty clear that they don’t feel particularly bound by that charter any more.
It’s even worse in England. Imagine, if you will, that Media Matters’ war on Fox News was being waged with the resources of CNN and MSNBC — which were wholly-owned subsidiaries of NPR and Public Television, with the full force of the government behind them.

I'm not sure it gets any more despicable than this
Paul Ryan: Obama has been “fundamentally un-presidential”