Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Murdock Scandal

By Bill Creasy

Rupert Murdoch and his corporate empire News International is becoming engulfed in a scandal including hacking of cell phones to listen to private messages, and bribery of police. Currently, most of the problems are in Britain, but an investigation is beginning in the U. S. This scandal relates to an article I wrote in WASHline asking whether corporations encourage unhumanistic behavior. I wrote

A corporation is organized and run to accomplish a particular narrow goal. For-profit corporations are organized around a need to make money, but even nonprofits have a particular focus.

Because corporations have a narrow goal, they force their employees to work toward that goal. People as individuals have a range of needs and wants, but these are suppressed. People have a feeling of empathy for the suffering of others. But if their employer, a corporation, causes suffering, the individual is able to say "it isn't my fault" or "it isn't my problem."

Modern life depends on corporations. But there are certain kinds of corporations that produce bad results....

One kind of bad corporation is a dictatorial corporation. It can happen that the board of directors and shareholders to become completely passive and allow the CEO to do whatever he wants. If the CEO is successful, that's fine. But power corrupts, and the CEO may not be able to distinguish his or her personal good from that of the corporation. For example, the CEO may decide to spend corporate money to elect political candidates. This is perhaps the most undesirable effect of the Citizens United decision. At the same time, the CEO is still shielded from personal responsibility by the corporation....

The legal purpose of a corporation is to keep one person from being liable. But by doing so, it allows employees not to be responsible. If a government official is bribed and corrupted by a corporation that is only trying to accomplish its narrow goal, who is the person responsible for paying off this bad official? Are citizens losing political and economic control in society to unethical corporations run by irresponsible employees that have vast amounts of money and influence?

The scandal enveloping Rupert Murdoch, his associates including Rebekah Brooks, and his media empire, is turning into an example of this problem. Murdoch is a classic example of a dictatorial CEO. Apparently no one in his organization was capable of criticizing his actions. Carl Bernstein compared the scandal to Watergate and Murdoch to Nixon. Bernstein pointed out that there are indications that much more of the scandal will emerge (Newsweek, July 18, 2011, 4-6). He wrote that it is inconceivable that illegal activities occurred at Murdoch-owned newspapers without Murdoch's implicit agreement. Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of the British Guardian newspaper that broke the story of the scandal, wrote that the story caused a “surge of revulsion” in Britain. Previously, “you needed Murdoch to get elected in Britain,” and “British public life had molded itself to accommodate the Murdochs.” Now, “that spell has been broken.” (Newsweek, July 29, 2011, 45-47.)

Many humanists may connect Murdoch to the Religious Right because of the right wing commentators on Fox News in the U. S. Fox News has without question supported conservative Christian political influence, including giving jobs as commentators to a number of potential Republican presidential candidates like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee.

But Murdoch doesn't appear to be a Christian true believer. He is more of an amoral opportunist. His only interest seems to be amassing a media empire and the political and economic power that comes with it. Often, his efforts to increase his audience comes by lowering journalistic standards to the lowest tabloids standards, manufacturing stories and controversies out of nothing, and enflaming emotional political debates to the point that neither side is willing to have a reasonable discussion that will lead to a compromise.

Some of the tactics that are used on Fox News to generate controversy are discussed in the documentary Outfoxed, directed and produced by Robert Greenwald. It is worth noting that conservative commentators on Fox News regularly rail against declining standards of TV entertainment. But Murdoch's Fox Channel pioneered the "gross out" low-brow entertainment shows with sitcoms like "Married With Children" that were responsible for lowering the standards. "The Simpsons," an animated show, was considered risque when it started 20 years ago, but is now a mainstream show about a nuclear family with a loving husband and wife.

With this history of decreasing standards, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Murdoch's British media companies like News of the World were using illegal methods to get news stories on a routine basis. The methods included hacking cell phones to listen to messages, and paying off policemen. These are simply expedient ways of getting information. It wouldn't be surprising if some U.S. companies are doing similar tactics. Hopefully, elite companies like The Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Murdoch, are maintaining their standards.

If Murdoch knew about and approved of these methods, perhaps it is surprising that he thought he could get away with them as a long-term effort. Was he really such an absolute dictator in control of his company and British politicians that he expected no one would notice?

Being ethical means being concerned with the long-term consequences of actions. People in charge of corporations should be concerned with long-term survival, not just the simplest way to reach short-term goals. If Murdoch approved illegal methods to get news stories, he is an example of the worst kind of dictatorial corporate leadership. He and his close associates should be removed from control of the company, by any legal mechanism.

1 comment:

Don Wharton said...

Excellent post Bill! Of course, his appalling organization was also responsible for the criminal hacking and ridiculous spin of “climategate.” His tactics worked to convince many of the anti-science crowd that science is just a plot to get grant money. I don't think it has even registered the the only wrong was what his media goons did.