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Britain's Scandal, Private Media and Public Interest

Interviewee: Nicholas Lemann, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University
Interviewer: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
July 28, 2011

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As the News of the World phone-hacking scandal (TIME) ripples through British public life, critics are raising questions on the relationships between Rupert Murdoch's media company and British authorities. While the revelations have hurt attempts by Murdoch to acquire British Sky Broadcasting, questions remain about lasting effects on the global media industry, the need for regulation, and ethics in journalism. Nicholas Lemann, dean at the Columbia School of Journalism, says despite criticism of media consolidation, greater size and diversification may actually force positive change in companies like Murdoch's News Corp. because of the potential cost to other aspects of their business. He says while scandal sheets and infotainment will always be a part of the private-market press landscape, expanded public media in the United States may be the "most elegant solution" in serving the public interest.

What are your impressions of this scandal at News Corporation, specifically from a journalistic standpoint?

I am surprised at the extent of all this. Particularly, using hacking technology to get people's phone messages, and the partnership with Scotland Yard -- and what seems to have been some kind of entente cordiale between News International and the government. I don't want to sound so naÔve as to say I had no idea that journalists ever try to get their hands on stuff that isn't public information. But this takes it to a new level.

Do you think that this episode represents an isolated set of transgressions, or do you think that it is indicative of a broader problem within the media industry?

Obviously, I'm speculating here. The British tabloids play the game in a rougher fashion than most of the other players in journalism, including the American tabloids. So in that sense, I suppose it's more isolated to a category -- maybe just News of the World. On the other hand, journalism is a big category, it's very lightly regulated, it's not a formal profession with formal admissions requirements -- and therefore, there isn't a sense in this field of journalism of what's okay and what's not okay. Unlike medicine and law, there is no official code of ethics for the journalism profession. Perhaps that should be more developed, but even if it were, it wouldn't be force of law.

Do you foresee any public policy or regulation coming out of this, and if not, do you think there should be?

You'd think there wouldn't need to be, because phone hacking is illegal anyway. In other words, the scandal isn't that there's something legal that shouldn't be illegal, the scandal is that these guys broke the law. Certainly [in the United States], I'd be skeptical that that would happen. In the U.K., which I don't know as well, they are less wary of regulating the media than we are here. But I don't know exactly what the intervention would be, what this would call for.

If Murdoch didn't have such a big company, and didn't have big parts of his company that depended on a most-favored relationship with government entities -- such as in the BSkyB case -- it would be more possible for him to thumb his nose at everybody, and say, "We're going to keep writing News of the World and misbehaving like crazy. We're not trying to make everybody happy here." This is sort of what the National Enquirer does here. In a way, the dreaded media concentration phenomenon in this case is a break in their behavior.

Do you think this has the potential to have ripple effects in the U.S. at all, potentially on debate relating to media consolidation policy?

I'm not sure. In the world of media regulation, broadly speaking, there are two categories. There's structural regulation, and there's behavioral regulation. It's strange that today, in the United States, the debate is 99 percent about structural regulation and 1 percent about behavioral regulation. One could argue that in the now long-ago days when there was a lot of explicit and implicit behavioral regulation, if you were trying to control things like phone hacking, the way to do it was to regulate behavior, not regulate ownership structure. So I've always been a little mystified as to why people, who object to certain press behavior, are so obsessed with the ownership issue as the key that unlocks the door. The evidence seems to me that regulations like the Fairness Doctrine (PBS) and equal time did a fairly effective job in the portion of the media [television] that was regulated as a break on behavior.

I guess you could make an argument that no one media baron should be too powerful. But no matter what kind of ownership rules you put in, that won't guarantee an end to distasteful behavior among an over-aggressive press. In fact, you could argue that greater ownership is actually a stopper on this kind of behavior. For instance, Disney is a huge owner of media, but journalism is a minor part of their business -- the same with Time Warner. So while the National Enquirer can say, "If we behave like rogues in the way we go about our reporting, who really cares? We're not out there to be respectable." Time Warner or Disney might be fearful that such an ethic could have negative consequences in their other businesses.

Do you think that NewsCorp is seeing some of that?

Well, they lost BSkyB -- so yes.

Is there a conflict of interest when the same organizations, like News Corp., who are responsible for delivering the news and, theoretically, playing the "watchdog function" are also charged with providing entertainment?

I've used my bully pulpit as dean of the journalism school to argue persistently for a larger public media space in the United States. And this has a 99 percent unpopularity rating among my colleagues in journalism. It's amazing how hostile journalists in America are to this. And they just assume that if you have public media, you're talking Pravda, People's Daily. I think public media is the most elegant solution to the problem you're proposing. It sounds easy to say that there's a business sector that's expected to operate as a private business in the public interest, but that also must be self-financing through commercial means. You can force public institutions to operate in the public interest. And to some extent, you can force very heavily regulated private institutions to operate in the public interest. But while you can ask an unregulated sector to operate in the public interest, there's no guarantee that they're going to do it.

How cozy do you see the current relationship between government and media?

It's such a huge question, that it's hard to answer. In 1875, there was no press in America that was not explicitly tied to political parties. So the whole idea of this sort of press independent of politics would have seemed crazy to people. In 1872, one of America's best known newspaper publishers was a presidential candidate: Horace Greeley. So the baseline is that the press is part of politics.

Then in the 20th century you get this idea that the press is the fourth estate -- it's a check on politics. It's separate. In recent years, for a number of reasons, the American press has gone back to its partisan roots more than what used to be the case. In other words, you have to be really careful about the notion that it used to be that everyone in the press was public-spirited and independent, and now, somehow, they are all in bed with government.

Do you see this scandal as a clear violation of the public trust?

It's tough because you're dealing with this gigantic and unorganized field. It's very hard to picture somebody saying, "You know, I was an idealist and then I discovered that the News of the World does all these sleazy things. They really don't have these sacred First Amendment values." No one really ever thought that in the first place. And all these people who bought the paper that printed all these hacked messages, where did they think some of those stories came from?

As long as you have a situation where anybody can publish anything about anybody --and they do -- it's very hard to say: "We're going to do something that will sort of apply globally within the press landscape that will restore trust." Because you can't do it without suppressing freedom of expression for the unrespectable players. I don't think people are naÔve, and suspect they know that the New York Times is not akin to the News of the World.

Do you get the sense that this is just a scandal that will disappear from the headlines in a week or two?

That is very hard to predict. I don't think that there's going to be a wave of change in the United States that springs from this case. Britain, the News of the World is no longer with us and this definitely will hurt Murdoch and his empire. The number one net effect may just be a diminution of Murdoch's power in British society and politics. But remember when Princes Diana died and there was this huge outrage about paparazzi, and that "something must be done" but then nothing was really done. As long as there's money to be made in that kind of press behavior, particularly in Britain, I just don't see it going away.

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