22nd Dec 2010

Media v. Politics, or… Murdoch v. Cable


So Con-Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable declares war on Murdoch’s News Corporation – and then gets removed from the responsibility of deciding whether the global media conglomeration should be allowed to take over BSkyB (it is currently the 39%-majority shareholder in Britain’s largest subscription TV company). The quasi-judicial responsibility has been passed to Culture and Media Secretary Jeremy Hunt (yes, that was Hunt).

All of which puts Hunt/Cameron/Clegg in an awkward spot, not to mention Cable. If Hunt chooses to reinforce Coalition solidarity by taking the same view as Cable, he risks the wrath of Murdoch and the real possibility that The Times/The Sunday Times/The Sun/News of the World will switch political allegiance to Labour. Ed Miliband was quick to exploit the Cable/Murdoch conflict yesterday by forcing Cameron’s hand - it was a calculated and brilliant piece of politicking, likely to find favour with News Corp’s senior editiorial gatekeepers.

On the other hand, Hunt has gone on the record expressing his admiration for Murdoch – and senior Conservatives likewise hostile to the state-subsidised-public-service-broadcasting model will urge Hunt to go with his instincts. The previous Labour Government, including Hunt’s predecessor at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Ben Bradshaw, were openly critical of News Corp, so it would be bad form for the present regime to be seen to follow suit. But, of course, if Hunt does a U-turn vis-a-vis Cable, that will leave Vince fuming and Con-Dem exposed to more internal fractions.

WATCH THIS SPACE!!! The inextricable – and crucial – link between politicians and media corporations is no better demonstrated than right now…

UPDATE 24/12 – I do think Cable has got a valid point about how the covert investigative journalism behind the recording of his private remarks, to what he supposed were ordinary constituents, undermines MPs’ relations with Joe Public. Undercover reporting fosters a culture of fear among front-line public figures. A few years ago I did a radio interview in the wake of Sven-Goran Eriksson falling victim to similar journalistic trickery at the hands of reporters disguised as Arab businessmen. My culture of fear pov was countered by the presenter, who argued that famous people should expect the sort of treatment dished out off the back of questionable media ethics. Of course, the presenter was a journalist herself – birds of a feather, flock together and all that…

In the arena of academic social research, by stark contrast, covert investigations of almost every kind are deemed entirely unethical by professional organisations like the British Sociological Association. The embedding of trust and integrity among the researchers and the researched are key. Media organisations justify pushing the limits of ethical conduct by arguing that their reportage is in the public interest. But while the public interest may be partially satisfied at any given moment in time, the culture of fear that subsequently intensifies throughout the public sphere simply leads to a future marred by tighter press controls, more stringent PR/legal protection against exposure to scandals, and greater distanciation between political/public figures and the public at large. Which is the greater vice: ethical discipline  or professional distrust?

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