Stephen M. Walt

What the NewsCorp scandal really means (and why you should hope it implodes)

The steadily expanding "phone hacking" scandal in Great Britain is a good reminder that understanding politics requires a healthy appreciation of the role of arrogance and stupidity.  What began is a seemingly straightforward example of sleazy journalistic practice has grown into a full-blown scandal, and the circle of guilt keeps widening. Just look at the ...

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

The steadily expanding "phone hacking" scandal in Great Britain is a good reminder that understanding politics requires a healthy appreciation of the role of arrogance and stupidity.  What began is a seemingly straightforward example of sleazy journalistic practice has grown into a full-blown scandal, and the circle of guilt keeps widening.

Just look at the repercussions so far: 1) the NewsCorp’s bid to take over all of British Sky Broadcasting has been scuppered, 2) NewsCorp CEO Rebekah Brooks has resigned and is now under arrest, 3) long-time Murdoch associate and Wall Street Journal publisher Les HInton has also resigned his post, 4) Prime Minister David Cameron has been badly tarnished, and oh yes, 5) the head of Scotland Yard has resigned in the wake of revelations that it had bungled the investigation (which is a charitable way of putting it). The WSJ and FoxNews have been exposed as shills for their boss (Murdoch), which is hardly surprising but is hardly going to help their reputations.   

Oh, what a tangled web we weave….

Gallons of ink (or gigabytes of blog posts) have already been devoted to this story, but one broader element has received less attention amidst all the juicy personal stuff. What the scandal really teaches us is the dangers that inevitably arise when any single company or individual exercises excessive influence in media circles. Why? Because a healthy democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry, and media oligarchs can use excessive influence to skew what the public knows or believes in order to advance their own political objectives.  If the Murdoch scandal doesn’t convince you, just look at how Silvio Berlusconi used his media empire to drive his political career and look where Italy is today.

Furthermore, politicians are likely to accommodate powerful media organizations that are willing to play hardball, punishing politicians they didn’t like and rewarding officials who played along. The NewsCorp was a master at this, and it is no wonder David Cameron and even Scotland Yard became compliant.

The media sector is a critical part of any society, and keeping ownership divided as much as possible is essential for a healthy democracy. If ever there were a part of our society where aggressive anti-trust policy is essential, it is right here. Having a "free press" means little when a handful of voices predominate, and healthy democracy requires a political diverse ecology of editors, reporters, and commentators.

One could argue that the digital revolution is creating a far more heterogeneous information ecosystem, and gradually reducing the power of old-style media barons like Murdoch. There may be some truth in that, but the power of major news organizations like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, etc., remains formidable and some of them are bound to emerge as major players in the digital media world over time. Notice that this blog isn’t my own operation: Foreign Policy is itself a subsidiary of the Washington Post Corporation. And a lot of other blogs I read operate under the umbrella of larger organizations like the Daily Beast/Newsweek, the New Yorker, or the Atlantic.

I hope the scandal keeps widening, and that the NewsCorp eventually breaks into lots of tiny little pieces. Moving forward, I hope that government officials and the public will learn from this sorry episode and take a more assertive approach to regulating media conglomerates in the future. But based on what I think I know about politics and human nature, I’m not betting my retirement account on it.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola