When News of the World was absolved of institutional culpability four years ago by the Press Complaints Commission, few people would have thought it conceivable that the world’s most powerful media mogul would front a parliamentary inquiry. As a belatedly aggressive police investigation continues into the practices at his stable of publications, it is difficult to predict the ultimate outcome. Casualties look set to mount and no one seems invulnerable.
It is this uncertainty that is gripping observers around the world. There is collective schadenfreude over the wounding of a media behemoth – the very sentiment that it exploited to sell its papers. It is also a significant test case for editorial accountability and corporate ethics in a world hyper-saturated with news. It will likely recalibrate the relationship between the press and the power structures that it supports.
Unfortunately for our politicians, it is not easy to extrapolate these events to the Australian context. Much as the Gillard government might perhaps wish to share the same moral podium with its UK counterpart, News Corp publications here just do not go anywhere near the same extremes.
Moreover, the Scotland Yard investigation focuses on the methods by which content was gathered, not on whether the content itself is true.
In this sense, Australian leaders do not hold the same trump card as their British counterparts. There has been no long-running civil investigation over the methods by which journalists gather information, or whether illegal practices are cultivated and hidden.
This does not mean, however, that there are no underlying problems in reportage and commentary, as well as the way these are received.
The biggest challenge for any Australian government is that most media consumers do not tend to examine the content they receive too closely. Their outrage is thus easily provoked. Any sense of civic vigilance, crucial in enlightened democracies, is abandoned. This tendency to be easily distracted by emotive content is what is hobbling the debate around the carbon tax policy.
In other words, the problem for Prime Minister Julia Gillard is not that we have elements in the media who enjoy inflaming the public against her. (After all, much as freedom of speech can be an inconvenience, it is still fundamental to public debate). It is that Australians often fall prey to arguments that inflate their sense of indignation.
This is precisely what has allowed the Murdoch press to flourish in the UK. People loved reading about the sado-masochistic parties, the affairs and drug habits of public figures because it made them feel righteous. It is the same sentiment manipulated by commentators on the Murdoch-owned Fox Network in the US, which helped validate the Tea Party movement.
Indeed, there has been a palpable effort on both sides of the Atlantic to de-legitimise elected officials through News Group outlets. We now see shades of it here.
We should be alarmed by it. It is a much bigger deal than phone-hacking, yet much harder to prosecute. It is also difficult to contain because people’s views toward government can be cheaply purchased through the currencies of outrage and resentment.
Angry people are easy to create and impossible to reason with. That is how they become the power base of unscrupulous media personalities.
We are all the worse for this. We count on voters to arrive at their decisions more thoughtfully and independently, not just because they happen to be angry.
Thus, if anything worthwhile is to come out of this epic scandal engulfing the Murdoch empire, it is the reorientation of the reading and viewing public toward the role of media in society, including how media players are meant to conduct themselves. As the Milly Dowler case demonstrates, it is not in our interest to condone media practices that are patently illegal, unethical or immoral. Such complicity will eventually make victims of us all.