Media and Moral Values

07/21/2011 08:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011

The function of the press is very high. It is almost holy. -- Louis D. Brandeis, Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court

A media scandal has been unfolding in Great Britain, the likes of which has never been witnessed before.

The scandal is so great it threatens the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, and has already cost him The News of the World, forced him to give up efforts to buy controlling interest in BSkyB, the commercial rival to the BBC, saw the value of his corporate holdings fall in one week by more than eight billion dollars, and the head of News International, his parent company in England, arrested by Scotland Yard.

In addition, the political repercussions are vast, and some think the coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron is in peril. Moreover, Scotland Yard itself has seen the resignation of its two top cops.

This implausible story, one that makes Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's fictional account of Fleet Street seem unimaginative, began in 2002 when News of the World reporters hacked into the cell phone messages of Millie Dowler, a 13-year old English girl who had been kidnapped. The reporters deleted certain messages from the girl's phone, leading her parents and authorities to believe she might still be alive. She wasn't. She had been murdered.

Scotland Yard commenced an investigation, but it was the beginning of a massive cover up, which found the police hiding incriminating evidence against The News of the World; evidence which showed Murdoch's journalists had not only hacked into the cell phone of the 13-year murder victim, but those of 4,000 others -- including members of the royal family, movie stars, star athletes, politicians, and stunningly, dead British soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carl Bernstein calls this disgraceful story of Murdoch's press empire in Great Britain, "Media's Watergate." He did not intend it as hyperbole.

I find the saga in England absorbing. As a former press secretary to two U.S. senators and a press aide to Bobby Kennedy in the presidential campaign of '68, media are a significant part of my life. Moreover, for 55 years I have read the British press, usually the broadsheets, as they are known -- The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, and The Times (now, unfortunately, owned by Murdoch).

I've always thought their newspapers were better written and their graphics superior to anything over here (with the exception of The New York Times).

But over the past three decades the press in Great Britain has been damaged greatly by the insidious influence of Murdoch, whose tabloids, The Sun and The News of the World, were hell-bent on destroying the reputations of others, especially those whose political views conflicted with Murdoch's -- and who thereby posed a possible threat to his lust for monopoly.

But now his publications, including the once storied Times, are in deep trouble, and The News of the World has closed. No small thing. It was first published in 1843.

The story, however, was a long-time coming to the full light of public attention, because a lot of people lied about what had gone on, including Scotland Yard, which bore the primary investigative responsibility of Murdoch's newspapers.

Not only were the police paid by Murdoch's agents to provide damaging information on people's private lives, but some police officers pulled back from the investigations because they were told if they probed too deeply their own private lives, who was sleeping with whom, would be revealed by Murdoch's papers. No, really. No one is making this up. Murdoch's power was so intimidating it cowered Scotland Yard.

At the center of this darkening storm are Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, who before she resigned last week was head of News International, Murdoch's British holding company. Before ascending the greasy pole of Murdoch's empire she had been editor of The News of the World, and later The Sun. (The tabloid Sun's primary distinction is a daily feature on Page 3 of young women with large bosoms, with attendant statistics informing readers of their relative cup size -- B, C, D, or F.)

In her statement of resignation Ms. Brooks mentioned "the free press we value so highly." But it's appropriate to ask what is the "value" she associates with a "free press?"

Does she mean it's acceptable to hire private investigators to dig up dirt on people of prominence for the purpose of ruining their reputations, if not their lives? Does she mean it's acceptable to bribe police officers in an incessant quest for damaging information on others? Dose she mean it's acceptable to hack into people's cell phones, medical records, tax returns, and bank statements? Even when, as happened, your name is Gordon Brown and you are the Prince Minister of Great Britain?

(In one shocking incident, Ms. Brooks phoned the Prime Minister to tell him The Sun would publish a story saying his infant son had cystic fibrosis. The only people who knew of their son's condition were the Prime Minister, his wife, and doctors. Ms. Brooks' phone call reduced Gordon Brown to tears and traumatized his wife. There is no record that Ms. Brooks regretted her decision to publish information wholly irrelevant to Brown's role as Prime Minister.)

But amid the deeply troubling questions raised by this disgraceful chapter in England's press history, I have yet to read where one journalist questions the moral values of the profession.
In his media column Monday David Carr of The New York Times came closest when he used "pathology" to describe the media culture created by Rupert Murdoch, a world that includes News International in Great Britain and News Corp. in the U.S.

Earlier this week, before a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry in London, Rupert Murdoch, his son, James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks, answered questions from members of the House of Commons. They were queried on every aspect of this sordid affair, one that began with Millie Dowler's murder in 2002, and now, nine-years on, has broadened to include the ruling classes of England.

All three faced tough questions, and while the witnesses displayed appropriate humility and regret, they never acknowledged full responsibility for the odious happenings on their watch.

But there were several questions that went begging. Questions I specifically would have directed at Ms. Brooks.

The first question would have been: "Do you consider yourself a decent person?" The second, "do you consider yourself a person of moral values?"

Assuming Ms. Brooks would have affirmed she is both decent and moral, I would then have asked the following question:
"Ms. Brooks, given that you have characterized yourself as 'decent and moral', would you tell the committee and the people of Great Britain, why you thought it was acceptable to engage in practices that had as their end game circulation and monetary gains for The News of the World and The Sun, even if the end results meant the destruction of people's reputations and personal lives?"

The question wasn't asked, but my sense is would not have mattered. Rebekah Brooks would not have understood its meaning. And the reason, in part, is the "pathology" created by Rupert Murdoch diminishes the moral senses of all whom its touches.

I began this essay by quoting Justice Brandeis. You have a right to know I often invoke it. I do so because I believe it is true. Not true in a functional sense, but true as a standard toward which the media should ever be mindful.