Rupert Murdoch's Watergate

Defining deviancy
By EDITORIAL  |  July 13, 2011

Murdoch's Watergate

Carl Bernstein has called the voicemail-hacking scandal embroiling the Rupert Murdoch's London newspapers Murdoch's Watergate.

Bernstein should know. Murdoch, like Richard Nixon, is a character of Shakespearean complexity, with a capacity for motiveless malignancy that rivals Iago's.

Now, like Nixon — whose demise began with a third-rate burglary chiefly dismissed around Washington — Murdoch's global media empire could face severe strains thanks to the apparent violation of the civil liberties of man-in-the-street news subjects. And, like Watergate, initial reports of the scandal — here first reported by the Guardian in 2009 — were essentially ignored by the mainstream press for nearly two years.

Murdoch is a tycoon of darkness. Aside from his handful of quality publications — the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Australian his News Corporation specializes in smears, sensationalism, and mendacity.

Murdoch's enterprise, the totality of his career, has been spent "defining deviancy down." That was a phrase used by the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in arguing that increases in deviant behavior redefine social norms in ways that make what was once unacceptable merely commonplace.

In Massachusetts, we get a daily dose of this phenomenon in the Boston Herald, which hasn't been owned by Murdoch for years, but still traffics in the salacious and news shorn of meaningful context.

Those traits, for the most part, also characterize Murdoch's Fox News, the brainchild of (surprise) a former Nixonian, Roger Ailes. Nationally, Fox News sponsors the organized ignorance of the Tea Party, the bingo-hall-style politics of Sarah Palin, and the distortions, half-truths, and outright lies of Republicans such as Eric Cantor.Nowhere, however, is deviancy more apparent than in Murdoch's British tabloids: the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World, the remnants of which are expected to be folded into the Sun in the coming weeks and months.

What is paradoxical, in the United States as well as in Great Britain, is that Murdoch's operations are, for the most part, down-market, aimed at the lower rungs of wage earners, while the political positions espoused by his papers tend toward economic royalism, favoring big business and big corporations.

Murdoch styles himself a small "R" republican, which in Britain means an enemy of inherited privilege who is also unenthusiastic about — if not outright hostile to — the monarchy.

This is, of course, a charade. Murdoch is a billionaire oligarch whose publically stated aim is to pass control and management of his News Corporation media empire on to his children, especially his son, James, who runs the group's UK and Asian operations. Murdoch is opposed to privilege, as long as it does not interfere with his own. Queen Elizabeth is a bit of a piker when compared with the Australian-born Murdoch.

News of the World was shuttered last week in the hopes that this would slake public outrage over mounting evidence in the United Kingdom that hacking into the voicemail of murder victims, terrorist targets, and Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans was not an isolated series of self-contained indiscretions.

The news that former Labor prime minister Gordon Brown may have also been the target of hacking galvanized political opinion. Previously soft on Murdoch, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has called for parliamentary hearings and a full judicial inquest, and has executed a U-turn, demanding Murdoch's bid to acquire what is popularly known as Sky TV to be halted.

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