It might have been just a juicy scandal, the very sort that the now-defunct News of the World would have trumpeted on its front page. Hacking into the cell phone message systems of celebrities, royals, and even the families of an abducted girl and of 9-11 victims is not only unethical, but a crime. But the scandal has reached far beyond the British newspaper and its owner, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and has upset the faith in the institutions critical to a working democracy.
A free society requires an accountable government, and that institution has been badly damaged by the uneasy connections between Murdoch’s current and former employees and the British government. Embattled British Prime Minster David Cameron hired a former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, despite early warnings about the phone hacking, raising legitimate questions about Cameron’s judgment and relationship with the racy tabloid (Coulson has since been arrested in the matter). Further, Cameron had two dozen meetings with executives from Murdoch’s News Corp. from May 2010 until this month. [Vote now: Should U.K. police have arrested Rebekah Brooks?]
Then there are the police, who dismissed early episodes of phone hacking as isolated incidents when, in fact, the crime appears to have been far more extensive and ongoing. The head of Scotland Yard has been forced to resign over the matter, and there are allegations that police took bribes to provide private information about public figures.
And the media, too—another important part of a functioning democracy—has taken a serious hit in the scandal. News of the World, to be sure, was never considered a serious and reliable source of news, but the degree to which the newspaper was cozying up to government officials is alarming. Making the matter worse is that News Corp. has a broad, worldwide media reach, including The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and other properties. There has been no evidence of criminal activity on the part of Murdoch’s other properties, but the taint is there. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
What are citizens to do when the institutions that are supposed to keep each other in check—government, the media, and law enforcement—are themselves corrupted? Internal malfeasance is lamentable but limited: Corrupt politicians, plagiarizing journalists, and bribe-taking police officers can be ejected from their jobs, maintaining the integrity if the institutions as a whole. But what the News of the World scandal reveals is an inter-connection among those institutions that questions their very validity.
The only way for government, the media, and law enforcement to salvage their credibility is to do their jobs in overdrive. Newspapers must aggressively pursue the story (and The Guardian in Britain should be commended for continuing to pursue the story even after police dismissed it as an isolated incident). Police must arrest those connected to the scandal, and investigate those among its ranks who may have accepted bribes. And Cameron and his government must accept responsibility for its bad decisions and distance itself from media executives. People’s reputations may already be destroyed, and in many cases, deservedly so. The fundamental institutions of a democratic society still have a chance to save themselves.