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Journalists up and down the country are probably feeling worried — even the ones with a clean conscience and an aversion to rummaging in Kerry Katona’s bins. After all, the demise of a scandal-addled News of the World is set to bear much wider implications for British journalism than most of us, blinded by our white-hot rage against the tabloids, are able to foresee. Bowing to national pressure, David Cameron has now announced that a public inquiry into the “ethics and culture of the press” will be conducted, along with a shake-up of its current self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission. Embarrassingly, he finds himself reiterating Ed Miliband’s words, whose open criticism of the Murdoch press reeks of a revolutionised Labour party that won’t be trying to regain the media mogul’s friendship. Still, as much as I admire Miliband’s courage in this respect, I fear that the collateral damage of this stringent ethical cleansing will be far too extensive.
I predict a momentary triumph for anti-Murdochites followed by a heavy, long-enduring loss for journalism as the PCC is replaced by some hulking pseudo-political authority, which proceeds to give the Free Press a serious pounding. More than just hacks hacking phones (excuse the alliteration), this inquiry will probably dredge up even seedier goings-on behind the closed doors of certain British newspapers. A minority of journalists which looks like a majority to myopic Joe Public will be filing for moral bankruptcy, and the result: ‘untrustworthy journalist’ stereotypes will abound, leading to some poofy-wigged judge declaring the press no longer fit to fully regulate itself. Amid tougher restrictions and strict governance, the journalists who don’t descend on celebrity wheelie bins like a plague of hungry locusts and who don’t mistake public interest for downright perversion might find it harder to do their job.
The problem is that Britain has been in love with middle-market tabloids for far too long. Apparently, it’s the scandalous trysts of the rich and famous that the great British readership wants to know about, not the heinous war-crimes of some power-hungry despot in the Middle-east. Invasion of privacy is now almost synonymous with journalism, and it is undoubtedly the nation’s insatiable need for more that has led to this newfangled culture of criminality flourishing within the offices of certain national newspapers. It appears that when it comes to getting that world exclusive, the ends justify whatever means. Ironically, within the same year that the News of the World gleans the coveted Scoop of the Year Award for unearthing the Pakistani cricket match fix, this newspaper has been shut down at the cost of more than 200 abrupt redundancies.
Forecasts for the future of the British media look even bleaker as the Murdoch empire continues to encroach on our TVs and newspapers. So far, in spite of widespread criticism and new phone-hacking allegations seemingly being made per hour, News Corporations’ plans to buy the rest of British Sky Broadcasting have only been slowed down, not reversed. Then, there are rumours that News International’s flagship title, The Sun, could be expanded into a seven-day paper or perhaps spawn a Sunday spin-off of sorts. The inevitable outcome appears to be that an even bigger chunk of this nation’s present and future journalists will end up on Murdoch’s payroll, a harrowing thought for British journalism which thrives on the plurality and political independence of the press. Our media might not be as much in Murdoch’s neo-conservative stranglehold as its American equivalent (think Fox News) but that might change once, as sole proprietor of BSkyB, the media tycoon is allowed to usher his army of Glenn Beck types and other such ultras onto our TVs.
More regulations and more of Murdoch spells serious trouble for the best of the British press. I suggest that before David Cameron launches his public inquiry into the standards of the press, he should first command a proper inquiry into the business practices of News Corp. Surely, if said company intends to become as integral to British culture as the BBC, it would only be reasonable for the PM to demand that this company be given a thorough once-over before he considers granting it full visitation rights into our homes.
With more than 100, 000 having signed the petition to block the BSkyB takeover, the public outcry against the Murdoch empire is only growing louder. Journalism shouldn’t take the fall when most of the blame lies so squarely on Murdoch’s territory, but I fear that Cameron is in it too deep to take as critical a stance as Ed Miliband. The public inquiry will probably go ahead, whether we like it or not, and it will probably mean an even more restricted press in a nation where gagging orders are becoming the norm. As more details of this ominous public inquiry trickle out into the open, I’ll be playing the waiting game, hoping for the least worst case scenario.