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John Wellington Ennis

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Rupert Murdoch Shows Us the Need for Government Oversight

Posted: 07/20/11 10:40 PM ET

In their testimony before the House of Commons yesterday, Rupert and James Murdoch insisted on their ignorance about the phone hacking and bribery scandal that engulfed their publication News of the World and led to the resignation of top editors and police officials.

In their shaky recriminations against the people who worked for their people, it's a wonder the Murdochs would know much of anything that goes on in their newspapers. For NOTW editor and Murdoch confidante Rebekah Brooks to not know the genesis of thousands of stories she was in meetings deciding upon defies plausibility. For NOTW staff members to organize a conspiracy to pay off cops for leads and hack into over 4,000 voicemails -- without their supervising editor knowing where so much money was coming from and to -- those are some very proactive, amazingly clandestine tabloid journalists breaking a myriad of laws at great personal risk.

If Rupert Murdoch is to be believed, as he would desperately like to be, then his loyal staff let him down by not doing the right thing, and coming to tell him about the massive hacking and bribery thingy that they happened to find out about and also knew was wrong. If he is not to be believed, the conclusion to be drawn is the same nonetheless: real government oversight is needed because so many laws are being broken, the idea of "corporate responsibility" is an oxymoron.

It's not just a bribery scandal Scotland Yard spent years trying to keep quiet, nor is it solely the privacy invasions of crime victims. Whistleblowers who first led to this story breaking are starting to die. Between discredited police and intimidated journalists, who knows if these highly suspicious deaths will be deemed foul play. But in everything from media consolidation to electronic privacy to public corruption and informant protection, it's tragically apparent that people don't police themselves well, and that includes the police.

Much of this scandal surrounding the Murdoch empire pertains to keeping the tabloid mill churning -- hacking voicemails to get scoops to sell more papers making more money to pay off cops to help you get more scoops. NOTW was the top tabloid paper in Britain until ending its 186 years in fiery disgrace. Similar revelations may yet emerge, from other tabloids in Britain or from other Murdoch media companies.

Where the salacious culture of Royal gossip and Spice Girl updates have made tabloids a defining aspect of England's classist society, Murdoch's media aspirations were targeted at Americans to appeal to their basest cultural cravings: sanctity for nostalgia posing as patriotism, self-important indignation, and fear of others (like those injuns).

Seeing the act of Mr. Burns and Smithers before members of Parliament made me recognize that however divisive and misleading FOX News is, it was just another money-making gambit featuring hot models. Roger Ailes turned FOX News into the partisan dragon that it is today. Rupert Murdoch doesn't actually seem particularly beholden to lawmakers, probably because he believes he makes the laws. Bush speechwriter David Frum said last year, "The Republicans originally thought that Fox works for us, and now we're discovering we work for Fox."

In recognizing how FOX News pushes outrage in all forms at all time, it might be an opportunity now for Republican leaders to take this time to free themselves from the petulance of FOX's xenophobic mantras, and realize that they are bigger slaves to their news cycle than anyone. Because government oversight -- looking out for its citizens best interest -- cannot happen when government leaders are working night and day to impress a cable news producer, who may as well be a reality TV producer restless for drama.

Government oversight goes even further than not being a publicity whore. The newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could be an opportunity to re-imagine how the government works to protect its citizens. Yet even though Obama opted to not nominate Elizabeth Warren to a surely partisan battle, and instead tapped former Ohio AG Richard Cordray, Republicans are expected to fight the appointment nonetheless. Republicans seem to fight any attempt at oversight, and it probably has to do with all the money they get from businesses that they are trying to deregulate.

But in what name is this constant cry for deregulation? What do business leaders implore the White House over and over to stave off paying a little more? 'It's bad for business. What hurts me hurts you. Make me pay more and I will threaten your economy -- not to make threats. But, to make threats, we'll spend a lot of money we just said we couldn't afford on ads against you.'

Well, here's what we've learned so far, Cassandras of Capitalism: If you cut taxes for the rich for ten years, they don't spend it on creating jobs, they spend it on politicians to cut their taxes lower. You can change the laws to allow for one media mogul to own multiple newspapers, radio, and TV stations in a single market, but that mogul doesn't have to be accountable as the owner when those media outlets break laws.

It's the cliché conservative Catch-22 of refusing responsibility for others then acting astonished when others loot the treasury; or vilifying government intrusion while counting on corporate tax breaks (i.e., "welfare queens"); or redefining commodities trading to where the high-priced commodity in question doesn't technically really exist as such.

Rupert Murdoch obviously needs help overseeing his vast media empire: NewsCorp needs to be investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Elections Commission.

John Wellington Ennis is examining the role campaign finance plays in lax government oversight for his upcoming documentary PAY 2 PLAY.

 

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