Lessons Learned From the Fallout of Murdoch’s Media Empire

The phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the British establishment in the past few weeks has sent repercussions beyond Britain’s borders, even as far as the United States and Australia, where news outlets belonging to media mogul Rupert Murdoch operate.

In the latter two countries, the case has sparked anger among politicians and the wider public for fear of falling victims to the same illegal practices that had been committed by staffers of the Murdoch-controlled News of the World newspaper.

Indonesia is not an exception. Although Murdoch’s firms do not operate here, the scandal has generated public interest on the grounds that the magnitude of the case is quite extraordinary.

The News of the World allegedly hacked into the cell phones of more than 4,000 people in Britain, including politicians, celebrities and commoners.

What was even more disgusting was that the paper also hacked a murdered girl’s mobile phone while she was missing, even deleting some of the messages, giving false hope to her family that she might
be alive.

This latest act brought the case to light, and implicates the newspaper’s top executives and its owner Murdoch.

The phone-hacking scandal that involves journalists may be unthinkable in Indonesia, thanks in part to the fact that the culture of investigative reporting has not yet flourished in the country.

Only a few media outlets invest sufficient resources to pursue investigative stories, while the majority provides a surfeit of talking-news.

Seen in this light, the unstinting efforts made by the News of the World journalists in seeking the truth could be commended.

However, in this case, the ends cannot justify the means. Journalists should resort to ethical and legitimate instruments in their pursuit of scoops; only in rare cases, if a case is of immense public interest, they may use certain tricks to garner a piece of information that could benefit the public when the story is published in the media.

The problem with Murdoch’s paper is that it went too far. News of the World journalists were not defending or promoting public interests when they resorted to phone hacking.

In the case of the murdered girl, they were merely trying to obtain private and sensational information from a family whose daughter was murdered, which was a blatant infringement of the family’s privacy.

It sparked fury among the public at large because the effort showed that the journalists were insensitive toward the family’s grief.

Thus, they quickly lost support from the public and the illegal practices swiftly sparked an immense uproar in England due to the fear that anyone — be they politicians, celebrities, the royal family or ordinary civilians — could become victims of such intrusive practices.

The reality is disheartening.

The media business relies on trust. When a print or electronic media source loses public credibility, the business will sooner or later collapse.

Once public confidence is lost, it is very hard to regain. The phone hacking scandal has ruined the reputation of Murdoch’s media outlets.

Many people across the globe, especially where Murdoch media outlets are operating, are questioning the credibility of Murdoch’s media firms.

Sooner or later, we may witness the demise of the “Murdoch Media Empire”, which he has built since 1953, after his father bequeathed him two newspapers in Adelaide.

The lesson that Indonesian journalists can learn is the need to expand their attention to include ethical considerations when obtaining and publishing stories, rather than focusing only on the discipline of verification, which includes that a journalist cover both sides of a story.

Many journalists still belittle the importance of ethics in garnering and presenting stories, which is evident in the rampant practice of “cloning news source recordings”: journalists who come late for an event and simply borrow interview recordings from other journalists, replay the tape and store it in their device.

In practical terms, there’s nothing wrong with it because in most cases the recorded voice comes from a news source.

However, there would be a big problem if the late comers were to mistakenly identify the source, or were deceived to do so.

This effortless journalism tends to happen particularly among beat-based reporters who are assigned to government offices, running counter to the general rule that journalists should obtain firsthand information themselves.

The other concern is the practice of writing stories based on TV interviews, which in many cases occur not because of the exclusive
nature of the Q&A program but because of a reporter’s lack of effort in getting access to the source.

Not to mention the reporter’s failure to attribute the story to the broadcasters as holders of the
material’s copyright.

Amid tight competition, the media need to keep raising the bar both in pursuing stories and maintaining ethical standards, or they will sooner or later face the fallout that the Murdoch empire is currently enduring.