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Moral Outrage Killed a Tabloid, but Can It Save the Climate?

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When I arrived in London last Tuesday, everyone was talking about the News of the World phone hacking scandal. While unscrupulous invasions of celebrity privacy was the tabloid's signature modus operandi, this time it had sunk to a level of unrivaled depravity. Investigators for the paper had hacked into the voicemails of a 13-year-old kidnap/murder victim and deceased soldiers' families, opening a devastating public window into some very private grief. In the case of the child, they went so far as to delete voicemails in order to free up space for new messages. Not only did this interfere with the frantic efforts of police to find her, it cruelly misled her friends and family into believing she might still be alive.

Public outrage over the scandal was swift and decisive. When the News of the World "stop press" announcement turned out to be literal, it took me a minute to register that something extraordinary had happened. Rupert Murdoch bowing to public opinion and closing the paper? I didn't see that one coming.

In his excellent analysis of these events, the BBC's Paul Mason credits the pivotal role played by the massive social media response in Murdoch's decision:

Large corporations pulled their advertising because the scale of the social media response allowed them to know what they are obsessed with knowing: the scale of the reputational threat to their own brands.

We do not yet know the scale of the Twitter and Facebook campaign on companies to pull their ad spend. A sense of it can be gleaned by the 150,000 submissions to Ofcom over the [proposed] BSkyB takeover.

It was the present and future threat to advertising revenue and to investment that forced Mr Murdoch to kill the News of the World.

In other words, his decision was based more on a cold calculation of business and financial interests than a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Present. But it was public reaction, of course, which impacted those interests. 150,000 submissions, out of a population of around 51 million people, represents around .3% of the total. And while the Twitter and Facebook numbers would've added up to far more, it is unlikely that an absolute majority of the population had registered its "vote" in this way. Advertisers took their cue from a combination of signals -- they knew that a critical mass had been reached.

The story doesn't end with the closure of the tabloid. The political reverberations may have only just begun. To quote Mason again:

The Murdoch empire fractured, a Conservative prime minister attracting bets on his resignation, the Metropolitan Police on the edge of yet another existential crisis and the political establishment in disarray. A network of subversives would have counted that a spectacular result to achieve in a decade, let alone in a single week.

As in the Egyptian revolution, we see again the power of moral outrage to act as a spectacular catalyst for social change. So are there are lessons here for the climate movement?

The clear moral dimension of the climate crisis, and the scandalous behavior of fossil-peddling corporations and their political cronies are certainly no less outrageous. In the same week that the Murdoch scandal was unfolding, more than 10 million people were struggling to survive the worst drought in 60 years in the Eastern Horn of Africa.

Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute's 6th international climate denial conference, made possible with the generous support of big oil and ol' king coal, had just wrapped up. And the US National Snow and Ice Data Center announced that the summer Arctic sea ice cover had continued its alarming meltdown. In June 2011, ice coverage was the second lowest since 1979.

Why is it that our outrage about these facts has not reached critical mass in the way that the phone hacking scandal has done? There may be some hints about why that is, and how we might better communicate the climate crisis, in the following observations:

  1. In the Murdoch case, people from all walks of life took action because they were genuinely, deeply disgusted by a very specific incident (or series of incidents). The voyeuristic invasion of privacy of ordinary people suffering under extraordinary circumstances was a clear betrayal of deeply held, perhaps universal, values of right and wrong.
  2. Celebrity wiretapping has never touched the public in the way this case did. These victims were not people whose career choices made them an object of public attention -- they were people "like us."
  3. Family values were at the heart of the matter. Every parent identifies with the terror and grief of losing a child, and anyone who makes that suffering worse is by definition the villain.
  4. These people were not only breaking the law, they were playing dirty. Outrage over corporations that do not abide by the same rules as the rest of us is at an all-time high thanks to the global banking crisis and the tax-evading practices of companies such as General Electric.

One final point worth considering, which speaks to pragmatism rather than values, was how quickly change happened once it became in Murdoch's corporate best interests to do so.

The most important take-home point for me is the fact that tipping points in public opinion can be reached almost in the blink of an eye. As Paul Mason noted, "The most important fact is: not for the first time in 2011, the (social) network has defeated the hierarchy."

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