Rupert Murdoch always had one impressive asset going for him as he lorded over his world publishing empire: while cities around the globe saw the demise of their local newspapers, Murdoch expanded. Some of his newspapers were lurid and of questionable reliability, but Murdoch had never closed a newspaper.
That changed this week, when Murdoch’s racy and shock-reliant News of the World closed. While it may not have been Murdoch’s desire, it was certainly his doing (or at least, the doing of his executives and employees). While the newspaper--if it can be called that--was widely regarded as an unreliable scandal sheet, the crimes committed by one or many people at the publication were unforgivable. Someone at News of the World had been hacking into the cell phones of celebrities, government officials and even the bereaved relatives of deceased soldiers. The most appalling techno-assault was against the family of an abducted young girl; the hackers had erased some of the messages on the phone, giving false hope to the girl’s parents that she was still alive.
It goes without saying that such behavior is inexcusable, in complete opposition to the standards of any professional news operation, and an infraction that can and should be prosecuted in a courtroom. But what is troubling is that the scandal didn’t become a true scandal until it became known that some of the victims were just regular folks. The celebrities and royals whose phones were hacked were largely treated by the public as almost deserving of the invasion of privacy, as though being well-known brought with it a loss of basic privacy and dignity.
In some ways, elected officials in Britain have it a bit easier; the press doesn’t insist on ridiculous personal details about them as much as the U.S. press hungers for such information about the president, his family, and other senior lawmakers. But that’s not out of a peculiar across-the-pond respect for government; it’s because the royal family sucks up so much of the media energy that there’s less left to throw at government officials.
Thankfully, we have no evidence in the U.S. of phone-hacking of government officials by legitimate media outlets. But there is still far too much of a fascination with the private lives of public people. President Clinton and Hillary Clinton were able to shield their daughter from media scrutiny, and President Obama and Michelle Obama have admirably done the same with their daughters. But neither president could go on vacation without having an entourage of reporters, photographers and camerapeople traveling with them, scurrying around Martha’s Vineyard to yell out a question or take a photo of a family just trying to get a break from Washington. In parts of Europe, it is not uncommon for a newspaper story to say, "prime minster so-and-so was on vacation and unavailable for comment." Dramatic news events and crises would, of course, legitimately require a comment or action from a vacationing president.
But while the U.S. press has not crossed the line to phone-hacking, it would be wise to give lawmakers a bit more privacy.