A new word has entered the political lexicon in the aftermath of the hacking scandal that has resulted in the arrest of several employees of News of the World and in Rupert Murdoch's decision to shut down the paper and withdraw his bid to buy British Sky Channel. It is “schadenfreude,” the word Germans use to convey the pleasure people take in the misfortunes of others.
Long known, and widely resented, for his competitive ways, imperial designs, and willingness to push to the edge, Murdoch has long had his share of detractors, a good many of them within his own industry. For years, it had become fashionable in liberal (now known as “progressive”) circles to deride both Murdoch and his “brand.” Mere mention of his name conjured up images of shouting tabloid headlines, pictures of barely clad young women (often on page 3), and lurid exposés of the latest sex scandal involving politicians or members of the British royal family. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
In the mid-1980s the sensation in London’s West End was the play entitled Pravda. Written by David Hare and Howard Brenton and starring Anthony Hopkins, the piece satirized the British press. Everyone took the character Hopkins played as a stand-in for Murdoch. The production was somewhat of a Citizen Kane in camp and put to music. Never prone to let a good joke, the opportunity to sell papers, or the occasion to up their owner’s name recognition pass, the Murdoch papers gave the play stunning reviews. Perhaps its authors will update it, adding an act to include the travails that have lately beset Murdoch’s empire. The world in which Hare and Brenton's fictional character resided was still without cable television, the Internet, and cell phones. Imagine what these two writers could dream up today.
For the moment, it would appear that the most egregious parts of the still unfolding scandal are the easiest to control. As Prime Minister David Cameron suggests, if laws have been broken, and it appears that they have, those who committed these violations and those who ordered them broken need be prosecuted. In scandals of this sort, however, it is not always the simple parts that attract the most attention. [Read Milligan: News of the World Hacking Scandal Threatens Free Society.]
There is an aspect to this case that is just as troubling as the unwarranted hacking of innocents: the excessive closeness between those making their livelihoods in the media and the governments they cover. Cameron has been excessively grilled in Parliament for hiring as his communications director Andy Coulson, the former editor of Murdoch’s now defunct News of the World. Coulson had resigned from the paper after one of its reporters was convicted of illegal telephone hacking. That the prime minister hired a man who was then under an ethical cloud was hardly his brightest move. With the hacking matter growing in intensity, Coulson left Cameron’s employ in January. He was subsequently arrested for his own role in the hacking affair.
Surely, Murdoch’s critics in his industry and out do not suggest that elected governments be barred from trolling the ranks of media enterprises for experienced hands to handle their relations with the press and develop a “message” for their principals. This one would not know it from their coverage of the scandal. Much of it invites the inference that Murdoch had put a “plant” into the prime minister’s inner sanctum and that Cameron was in on the arrangement. (Given the closeness other coverage suggests existed between Murdoch and so many heads of government, one wonders why plants were necessary.) [Vote now: Should U.K. police have arrested Rebekah Brooks?]
Obama’s current press spokesman, Jay Carney, headed Time magazine's Washington bureau immediately before signing on as press secretary to Vice President Joe Biden. No one has suggested that Time-Warner, a company that regularly has business before the Federal Communications Commission, arranged for Carney’s change of careers. Carney’s wife, Claire Shipman, is senior adviser for ABC News. (Let it be said that neither is being investigated for tax fraud.) Might a conflict of interest exist, however, in that that part of the couple’s joint income comes from public funds earned in service to the present administration?
Such questions may well be asked of them and of many others, should a self-appointed ethical police emerge on both sides of the Atlantic committed to saving the public from future alleged Murdoch-Cameron alliances. With schadenfreude poised to go viral, Murdoch’s detractors on the left may find it impossible to construct a web tight enough to engulf the Murdochs of this world and loose enough to prevent themselves from becoming ensnared in it.
Corrected on 8/5/11: A previous version of this blog post incorrectly asserted that Craig Oliver, communications director for British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Oliver's wife are under investigation for tax fraud--they are not. U.S. News regrets the error.