The Lessons of News of the World

Murdoch made politicians tremble and led them to approve additional acquisitions and licenses even when it was clear they would only give him more power to use against them.

It is already clear that the criminal culture of hacking into voicemail and computer databases of banking and medical files, among others, was not the sole province of a few rotten apples in one British weekly, News of the World. It spread to at least two other mass-circulation newspapers belonging to Rupert Murdoch's U.K. group, The Sun and the Sunday Times, and perhaps to media outlets owned by Murdoch in the United States.

For at least three decades the Murdoch media empire has operated in a charmed circle. Aggressive journalism leads to excessive political power, which in turn paves the way for crossing the lines of competitiveness into the creation of a monopoly, which leads to further aggressive journalism, and on it goes.

murdoch - AP - July 20 2011

It is unclear what came first, but it is increasingly obvious that the lack of restraint on the part of Murdoch's newspapers and journalists not only led to sensational headlines but also created the power that enabled the growth of the biggest media empire in history.

There is as yet no proof that the orders came from on high, but there is no doubt that the editors and reporters at Murdoch's papers knew he expected them to create the juiciest, reddest and loudest headlines, at any cost. Headlines that were the engine of Murdoch's enterprises, that made politicians tremble and led them to approve additional acquisitions and licenses even when it was clear they would only give Murdoch more power to use against them.

It is very easy, too easy, to disparage the British press, but Murdoch's papers produced a constant flow of exclusive stories, exposes and investigations with a quality and frequency that their counterparts in Israel and around the world can only envy. The issue is determining the location of the red line separating legitimate means for obtaining information from those that violate ethical principles and the law. When reporters and their editors cross this red line, one must ask what pushed them into the forbidden zone.

This is a very British scandal, but Britain is not the only place where a media corporation can reach the level of a monopoly whose reporters win exclusive stories on a daily basis, not necessarily because of their journalistic talents. In today's Israel, too, there is an example of a symbiotic relationship between the prime minister and a newspaper owner. The race to the highest circulation passes through giant headlines and sensational scoops, and the need to supply them every day leads reporters into pushing the limits of the ethical and legal envelope.

A reporter who supplies page-one scoops serves the public interest but is also a financial asset to the paper's owner, who might use them to obtain permits or discounts from the government. Reporters must be shielded from knowledge of the financial and regulatory burden they shoulder, or risk being crippled by it.

The lessons of the News of the World scandal are very relevant to the Israeli media. In Israel's crowded market a tycoon who creates or purchases a media outlet gains immediate access to power and priority that will help their other business interests.

The big investments in local media are welcome. They provide greater resources to spend on journalism, on the development of digital platforms and for higher salaries. They also force us to learn the British lesson well.