US President Harry S Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that stated ‘The Buck Stops Here’. It was a frank acknowledgement that while the power to make incredibly important decisions lay with him, so did the responsibility for their consequences. With the phone hacking scandal in Britain gathering pace, the big question on everyone’s lips is where does the buck stop and what does this mean for the freedom of the press.
The media in the UK is always very quick to talk about their rights. The right to know, their right to investigate wrong doing, sniff out corruption and hold government to account. The ‘fourth estate’ has long trumpeted their role as an unofficial watchdog of the state. However with all this talk about their rights, the media is often less keen to discuss their responsibilities. A free press is the bedrock of any good democracy. As Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter’ (of course he said this before he became President which changed his opinion considerably). In Britain and the USA the press have extraordinary freedom of action compared to some other countries, but these rights come at a price.
Far too often the media like to portray themselves as disinterested observers. ‘We don’t make the news, we just report it’ seems to be the mantra of many journalists. This is grade A nonsense. The freedom of the press is increasingly becoming the freedom of five or six very rich people to say what they want without fear of contradiction or consequence. Most of the worlds media is run by huge transnational corporations who have their commercial interests at heart. They use their power and position within society to promote these interests to the hilt while pretending to be a friend of the people.
That said, the vast majority of the journalists in this country are decent, honest and hardworking. They do an incredibly hard job under difficult circumstances. The pursuit of profit in recent years has seen the number of reporters in newsrooms cut drastically. Meanwhile the launch of internet editions and rolling news has meant that fewer and fewer people are having to produce more and more content. This partly explains the culture that allowed corruption to flourish but doesn’t diminish the fact that journalists are now no longer trusted like they once were. As a result their ability to function has become severely compromised which damages our democracy. No other industry in the world would be allowed to regulate itself. If the nuclear industry tried to do it they’d be laughed out-of-town. As much as it sounds like a contradiction, the press must accept greater regulation if they are to remain free.
This brings us to the issue of responsibility within News International. So far no one seems keen to step up, take the buck and accept responsibility for what has been happening at the News of the World. This is perhaps not surprising as it appears increasingly likely that whoever this person is will end up in court. As a result large amounts of time and resources are being thrown at the problem of trying to make sure that those at the bottom pay the price rather than those at the top. Already 200 blameless journalists at the News of the World have paid with their jobs. Andy Coulson has been arrested and interviewed by the police. How much further up the management ladder will this infection spread?
There are two possible ways of looking at this situation. One is that what News International is facing is a Domino Rally. Once the first domino falls it starts a chain reaction knocking over all the other dominos in the pack. However the process can be quite easily interrupted by removing one or two dominos from the chain. Effectively this is what Murdoch has done by shutting down the News of the World. He hopes that by taking out the paper it will stop the chain reaction that would eventually have impacted on Rebekah Brooks and his son James Murdoch. The other way of looking at the situation is as a House of Cards. Unlike a Domino Rally, once a House of Cards starts to collapse almost no force on Earth can stop it. Rupert Murdoch’s strategy is dependent on it being the former rather than the latter. The main thing both scenarios have in common though is that once set in motion they both tend to occur extremely quickly.