Thursday, April 17, 2014
Sun dims as power shifts away from Murdoch media
Global Times | February 19, 2012 20:35
By Jamie Kenny
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The year was 1993. The place was London. And two important men were having an urgent telephone conversation.

One was John Major, the British Prime Minister at the time. The other was Kelvin McKenzie, the then editor of The Sun, Britain's best selling daily newspaper and a major force in the country's politics.

Major wanted a favor. Britain had just been forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which meant that it could not join the euro. Today that is working to the country's advantage. But back then it was viewed as something which destroyed the government's economic credibility.

Could McKenzie and his boss, media mogul Rupert Murdoch go easy on the government, Major pleaded. Hadn't they always worked well together?

McKenzie had other ideas. "Prime Minister," he said. "I'm holding a big silver bucket full of shit in my hands. And tomorrow I'm going to pour it all over your head."

Today Major and McKenzie are long gone. But the silver bucket still exists, and its contents are being poured all over the Sun. Many think it will not survive the experience. A total of 10 senior Sun journalists have been arrested on suspicion of bribing police and other public officials since investigations began.

This is the latest twist in the "hackgate" saga, which has already seen the closure of the News of the World, another bestselling British Murdoch-owned tabloid. The story is too long and complex to give all the details here. But it basically goes like this.

Murdoch-owned UK tabloids hacked phones and computers and paid public officials in order to get better stories. They weren't alone in doing so, but they were among the chief offenders.

These stories sold more newspapers. More sales meant more influence over politicians and lots of inside information. That meant more favors for Murdoch business interests, privileged access for the Sun and other Murdoch's papers, and official tolerance for whatever crimes they chose to commit - until now.

Many in China fear that an unrestrained press will result in a growth of private influence. The hackgate affair certainly demonstrates that the problem of turning power into money and back again is not confined to China. But the basic problem here is the concentration of power, whether in the hands of government or private business. It shows that both will work together against the public interest when they have the means to do it.

In the UK, Murdoch controls the country's best-selling tabloids. He owns the prestigious Times and Sunday Times. He has a controlling stake in Sky, the UK's largest network of cable and satellite channels. He dominates the media sphere while claiming outsider status.

Until very recently, politicians clamored for his support. In the first 15 months of David Cameron's government, the Prime Minister met no less than 26 times with Murdoch and his executives, though these days he is not at home when they call.

Few people in the UK want the government to regulate the media. Instead, the talk is of journalists answering to an independent professional standards body. What is really needed is legislation to limit market share and cross-media ownership by any one company. That way, media organizations would compete to serve their audiences in a genuine market, rather than expand their power by working through the political classes.

Government control of the media is no answer. It just passes the bucket from the media executives to the politicians. But government does have an obligation to ensure that no private organization controls too much of the media. Maybe then McKenzie's silver bucket can be passed into the hands of the public where it belongs.

The author is a journalist in the UK.


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