News International: what does it mean for civil society?

We’ve kept fairly quiet about the astonishing sequence of event that has unfolded over the past couple of weeks, preferring to take stock and seek to make sense of them on a broader scale. There has, of course, been an immediate seismic impact: the closure of the News of the World, the halting (for now, at least), of Murdoch’s efforts to take full control of BSkyB, and now his investigation by the FBI. What’s less clear, as yet, is

the degree to which Murdoch’s fall from grace constitutes a sea change in the protection of civil society, however, is yet to be established. As the Stop The War coalition implies, interrogation of Murdoch is unlikely to include serious critical assessment of the degree of influence his papers have wielded (and may continue to wield) over public opinion.

His jingoistic support for the war in Iraq is one example of that influence — subsequently proven to be based on false information. In other words, criminal activity is grounds for investigation; actively promoting appallingly low journalistic standards isn’t — at least, not yet.

Another question yet to be resolved is the impact this scandal will have on David Cameron’s political career. He certainly looks culpable for employing Andy Coulson, and is — as Ed Miliband has highlighted — yet to strike a note of contrition. That said, he’s hardly alone in surrounding himself with present and former News International employees. Miliband himself appointed Tom Baldwin, a former NI journalist, as his communications director. Murdoch appeared to be exceptionally close to Tony Blair at the time of the invasion of Iraq, and former press officer to Tony Blair, Lance Price, described him as “the third most powerful figure in the Labour government” at the time.

We want to see this whole situation lead to closer scrutiny and regulation of journalistic monopolies. While it’s difficult to quantify the exact impact of, for example, The Sun‘s support of the 2001 invasion of Iraq, the newspaper has a circulation of nearly 3 million, and is estimated to be read by more than 7 million people a day. That’s a lot of people exposed to ‘news’ that in some cases has been shown to be based upon fabricated evidence.

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