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Murdoch and the Power of Shame

By David E. Roy

Some time back, I wrote an open letter to Mr. Murdoch in which I explained that keeping Glenn Beck on the air was making Mr. Murdoch look incredibly foolish. In fact, I reminded him that he had the best of the best educations in both Australia and England; whereas Mr. Beck, had virtually none and that it showed. Within a week of the letter being published in Fresno’s Community Alliance, Beck was on his way out. I admit it is hard to take much credit for this, partially because I never actually mailed the letter, but it felt wonderful at the time.

But now, Mr. Murdoch himself is subject to the full weight of shame being directed at him by those Brits and others who are repulsed that his staff at seemingly the highest levels orchestrated hacking into the mobile phones of dead people, paying a great deal of money for ghoulish tidbits. Here we have the first electronic, “virtual” grave-robbing incident, at least the first known to me.

I suppose one way for the vast majority of us is to deal with this inevitability would be to record something well in advance of our death, something that would put the hacker’s teeth on edge. But, I doubt I or my phone would be of interest unless someone accidentally hacked the wrong number. There also is the problem of keeping the battery charged long enough for the phone to be of any postmortem use. Imagine the fun if the phone started ringing in the casket as it was being lowered into the ground.

Back to Mr. Murdoch: I believe it is clear, or soon will be, that whatever criminal charges are brought against the top-tiered management, the boss will not be charged with anything. Nor will there be any real damage to the News conglomerate even if the charges result in convictions and large fines. But what is killing Murdoch’s Empire are the blows being delivered by the revulsion felt by millions on both sides of the Atlantic for the baseness and utter insensitivity of tampering with the mobile phones of a dead child (and confusing parents and police by deleting messages, suggesting she must still be alive), and the phones of dead soldiers and, likely, the phones of those killed on 9/11.

Yes, old fashioned journalists could be a hardboiled, cynical lot. In my brief period as a full-time reporter way back when, for every major holiday, reporters and editors would enter the “Ghoul Pool,” guessing how many people would die in auto accidents during the official holiday period. However, this was Tucson and there were no outlandish, scheming dirty tricks to get “scoops” away from the evening paper or the rip-and-read television news desks.

As the morning paper, the Star covered everything up until 11 p.m., and maybe a hour later if it was a critical story. This meant the Citizen was more often in the position of following up the morning news. But no one would have gone as far as Murdoch’s army. This could have been different in New York City or Washington DC or Los Angeles at the time. Even so, and I may be holding onto a certain naive idealism to say this, I really don’t think most journalists, editors, and publishers, then or now, would go as far as Murdoch’s crew. Yes, I would be surprised, on the other hand, if there were not others out there at least as willing as Murdoch’s employees were to gain a fingernail clipping’s width of advantage no matter what it took.

But to me, that is the whole point: Few would do this and one of the best barriers is not the threat of being arrested but the anticipation of being found out, exposed, shamed in the public eye. Shaming is powerful and in most cases simply the facts of the embarrassing actions is enough to trigger the searing pain associated with the spotlight of shame. The kind of over-the-top sneering that Rush Limbaugh does is really not necessary to make the case. In fact, when it is so exaggerated, it is as though the people and their actions are not really that shameful so they have to be painted with shame to make the point.

The US based news organization that remains extraordinarily shameful, uttering falsehoods directly and by innuendo on a regular basis, is (of course) Fox. We shall see if the spotlight on Murdoch broadens to include the hive of activity at Fox.

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