GUEST COMMENTARY: Rupert Murdoch debacle proves need for journalistic ethics inquiry

Thursday, July 21, 2011 | 6:31 p.m. CDT; updated 10:54 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 22, 2011

LONDON — What would an American journalist tell Rupert Murdoch if she could lunch with him? I pondered that and other questions from London, having crossed the pond this summer to teach a class on international journalism to American students.

Journalists here are calling the phone-hacking drama that played out at Wednesday's parliamentary panel hearing Shakespearean in its proportions. Was it "Richard III," "King Lear" or "Much Ado About Nothing" — this elderly gentleman experiencing the most “humble day” of his life, apologizing deeply to the victims of phone hacking and being attacked by a foam-pie thrower?

For investigators, politicians and police, there were few answers or revelations other than the very human drama unfolding between a man, his son, their famously “flame-haired” editor and a media empire. As a journalist though, one had to watch searchingly for clues — into the mind of the man, and the mogul — about how things got to this point and what lies ahead.

The British, it turns out, are skeptical of the spectacle. Analysts wondered, was the “humble” act an actual PR strategy? Is this broken-man stunt for real? Will the real Rupert Murdoch please stand up? But for many, the brokenness was believable.

And in the human aspect of the drama, there were other revelations. In all the conversations about journalism, society and ethics that have been posed here during this crisis, shockingly Tuesday it was Mr. Murdoch himself who offered an impassioned statement about what journalism means.

He told members of Parliament of his father’s pioneering of the family business. He made the point that the diversity of media “voices” in a society and the competition it creates makes society stronger and leads to greater transparency.

A funny feeling that was, listening to a media mogul whose outlets – whether with News International newspapers or Fox News — are blamed on both sides of the Atlantic for polarizing civic discourse. And here he’s talking “transparency” and diversity of “voices” in the press — using the very words we use to describe what we try to do in the newsroom of the National Public Radio affiliate where I work in Columbia, Mo.

The drama of the phone-hacking hearing in Parliament that starred Rupert Murdoch and his son has me wondering what I might say to the elder Murdoch if I had the chance. The main thing: Ethics, not just legality, matter.

Was anything believable in Tuesday's act? It’s debatable. But a couple of things seemed clear. First, that Rupert Murdoch considers “journalism” — let’s say his brand of it — a family business and one that he is proud of. Second, that he seems to believe that his tabloid tactics actually create a more transparent society — as “inconvenient” as that is for some people, presumably people in power.

Up to this point, I think journalists throughout the world are with our Murdoch. But, if I could corner him over a London lunch for a half hour, there are a few simple things I’d want to say.

First, I’d tell him: Powerful journalism is not enough. It’s harder than that. Informing the public in a way that investigates power, while at the same time minimizing harm, as our NPR code of ethics prescribes, is more difficult than it looks. But it’s also non-negotiable. And, Mr. Murdoch, all of this is about more than selling newspapers.

One other crucial but simple point I’d make, if he lasted through dessert and coffee: Breaking journalistic ethics is not the same thing as breaking the law.

In his statement before the parliamentary committee, Murdoch apologized for the victims that had been harmed. He talked of a management standards committee that has been set up — in addition to his company’s full cooperation with a judicial inquiry into journalistic ethics — and offered this as a way forward. He lamented the people he had trusted who let him down and declined to take responsibility for the tactics used by his so-called “journalists."

But even then, when Murdoch spoke, however regretfully and brokenly, about what went wrong, he seemed to focus on the tactics that were merely illegal. It’s as if getting caught is how this man has been let down.

What someone needs to tell him — and what we need to remember ourselves — is that there is much that is legal that is still well outside the bounds of ethical, trustworthy investigative journalism.

What’s needed is not only a judicial inquiry into journalism ethics in Britain, but a journalistic inquiry into journalism ethics. It’s journalists here that are going to have to take the lead in the discussions and perhaps even the investigations if we’re to ensure that journalists everywhere have, so to speak, a leg to stand on.

This commentary first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. Janet Lewis Saidi runs a public radio newsroom and teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is working at the school's London program this summer. 

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david smith July 22, 2011 | 9:17 a.m.

LONDON — What would an American journalist tell Rupert Murdoch if she could lunch with him?
Most American journalists would have to say "I am a liberal hack who spews pro-Obama propaganda under the guise of a neutral network". All the libs are excited because they think this phone hacking scandal overseas is somehow going to bring down Fox News here. Murdoch went over to Britain and closed the newspaper down, period. Over in these parts of the world, people like NPRs Ron Schiller can blatantly admit that NPR has a liberal bias and what is the result....continued federal funding to a bunch of libs spewing liberal propaganda over a publically-funded network. What about Dan Rather using forged documents for his pre-election hit piece on Bush in 2004. Did anyone shut down CBS news over that? What about Ezra Klein's email group strategizing the delivery of anti-conservative, pro-liberalism propaganda in news reporting? If you want to see blatantly unethical journalism then one needs to look no further than the liberal networks here in the US.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire July 22, 2011 | 10:27 a.m.

Oh David, how it must SUCK to have the one who pulls your strings so well come under investigation...

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 22, 2011 | 11:19 a.m.

@david smith:

Thank you, David, for brightening my day. :)

"When it comes to arrogance, power, and lack of accountability, journalists are probably the only people on the planet who make lawyers look good." - Steven Brill [Quoted in the best seller "Bias," by Bernard Goldberg]

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire July 22, 2011 | 11:29 a.m.

Hey, I'm guessing by that he meant the journalists that said the bad stuff that he didn't particularly agree with and that he didn't want you or I reading from and not the ones who said everything that was "right" and that really needed to be said. Those people who said stuff like that would have to be good journalists...

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush July 22, 2011 | 12:22 p.m.

Hacking is a crime. Bribery is a crime. Corruption is a crime. News Corp. is a criminal enterprise whose tentacles reached to the top of the UK government and Scotland Yard.
Unless you want to outlaw "bias", you're comparing apples to hubcaps.
The perversity is how much criminality one is willing to overlook as long as the criminals support our view of the world. Even the Catholic Church found out they can't dodge the criminal justice system forever - the truth will be made known.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 22, 2011 | 1:38 p.m.

" the truth will be made known." It is already known about you. You are full of something and it ain't the truth.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley July 22, 2011 | 3:37 p.m.

I don't see what is so interesting or "shocking" about this...

Voicemail "hacking", number spoofing, and server and database breaches occur every day right here in the USA. Technology has made it so easy that even a person that only knows how to surf the web and check email can do it.

Why should anyone be "shocked" by the fact that someone went to a webpage, set up an account on that webpage, and then placed a simple phone call to listen to another person's voicemail messages?

We'd probably all be surprised if we knew just 1/100th of the people are actually conducting this type of activity.

Ricky B. Gurley.

RMRI, Inc.
(573) 529-4476

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 22, 2011 | 7:57 p.m.

David and Ellis: Watch this and see who has our troops' backs.

(Report Comment)
david smith July 22, 2011 | 10:12 p.m.

Hey Paul, did you get a thrill up your leg when Obama spoke today? Did you see Marco Rubio tear apart your lib anchor, bob schieffer, on face the nation last week. You know how Rubio tore him apart? He argued with facts Paul. You know facts, those inconvenient things that libs hate. If you ever want to win a fight with a lib, use facts, it works everytime.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire July 23, 2011 | 12:05 p.m.

"He argued with facts Paul. You know facts, those inconvenient things..."

That's weird. I usually get on the computer and argue with MORONS. It's much more convenient. After a little while of it I believe anyone can observe the process and see the facts. Why do people always want to argue with the facts when the facts are clearly not on their side?

Oh I know. They invent their own.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 23, 2011 | 1:13 p.m.

Send the facts to Iraq. Isn't that where everything else is being sent? Why make exceptions?

Iraq must be a very crowded place.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley July 23, 2011 | 1:19 p.m.

David Smith said: "He argued with facts Paul".

Oten times it is more accurate to say: He argued with HIS "facts".

RIcky B. Gurley.

RMRI, Inc.
(573) 529-4476

(Report Comment)
david smith July 23, 2011 | 10:19 p.m.

You shouldn't argue with yourself on the computer, it isnt productive and takes alot of time. Watch Rubio's interview and learn something, it may result in you not voting for a communist in the next election.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance July 25, 2011 | 3:59 p.m.

Only a manipulated dullard of modest means would consider Obama a communist. How about reading a book and finding out what a communist is. Taking the rich man's talk will not make you rich. As Bill Mahr said they are looting our future (infrastructure, education, etc)away with them and people like you are asking if you can help carry it. Pity

(Report Comment)
Tim Trayle July 25, 2011 | 5:02 p.m.

@David Smith:
Good grief. Anyone who calls Obama a communist or even a socialist is either playing silly language games, or showing profound ignorance of both terms. Obama is a center-left moderate politician, and his policies are deeply capitalist.
Schieffer's interview with Rubio: It was 9 and 1/2 minutes, and I swear to you, I saw *nothing* in that interview that warrants language like your claims that Rubio "tore up" Schieffer. I really find your characterization of the interview to be an odd one. Rubio's main ploy seemed to be setting up the strawman argument that "without doing something about the debt," raising the debt ceiling is absurd. I agree. The problem (for you and your characterization of this interview) is that Democrats also agree. That's why every plan (at least that I know of) submitted by Democrats contained significant debt reduction measures. Now, those measures may not be as extreme as some Republican ones, but they are there, and they are significant. In other words, Rubio was playing rhetorical games.
Here's the interview folks; judge for yourselves:
I also noted that when Schieffer asked him what Republicans were willing to concede--Obama after all has noted that he will consider means-testing Medicare--given their refusal to support tax increases, Rubio dodged the question entirely. Again, I'm not trying to be hostile, but I just do not see where your excitement over this interview comes from.
PS: Bob Schieffer is a former U.S. Air Force captain and good friends with the Bush family. His brother was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Australia by GW Bush. You can call him a "lib" if you want, but the idea that Schieffer is some kind of biased reporter carrying water for Democrats (which *is* your implication) is patently absurd.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 25, 2011 | 9:15 p.m.

I finally got my laugh for the day.

Tim Dance makes some holier than thou comments about "a manipulated dullard of modest means" then, to prove his point he quotes BILL MAHR? Give me a break! That guy is the epitome of a manipulated dullard.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance July 26, 2011 | 1:37 p.m.

Frank, sorry you have an inferiority complex. It seems that some conservatives have a disdain for people that educate themselves. Calling them elitist or holier than thou. Keep celebrating your ignorance. Mahr is right. He cannot understand why people like yourself continuously vote against your own self-interest time and time again. His comment was directed at those who were appalled by the verdict in Orlando. He said if you vote Republican, you have no room to complain. Because despite of the evidence that the Republicans are trying to destroy the middle class, people of modest means still vote for them.

(Report Comment)

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