Phone hacking scandal reflects Western media's institutional dilemma

16:03, July 25, 2011      

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The phone hacking scandal of the U.K.-based News of the World has triggered a domino effect: Other media under the News Corporation are finding themselves embroiled in the scandal one after another. The voices calling for investigating and self-examining the ethics of media and how journalism is supervised have become very strong in the United State, Australia and other countries. The scandal has even surpassed the borders of media and caused chain reactions in the police and political circles, and the U.K. Premier David Cameron has experienced the largest taunting since he took office.

The phone hacking scandal is not an aberration caused by a media agency that disregards its social responsibility and abuses its freedom of press. It reflects the institutional dilemma that the Western media and democratic system encounter during their development processes.

In the history of Western journalism, the mass media once held high the flag of "freedom" and beat the drum for the establishment and development of the capitalist democratic system. Western media also flaunted that they were "the Fourth Estate" that was independent from the administration, judiciary and legislature and were "an uncrowned king" who spread truths and safeguard the justice.

However, when the tide of capital monopolies and mergers came, mass media were inevitably involved. In the 1980s, 50 large companies mainly controlled journalism in the United States. In the middle of 1990s, it had fallen into the hands of 10 companies.

Now, in the 21st century, the media of the United States is almost monopolized by only five financial groups, including Time Warner, Walt Disney and News Corporation. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation reaches several continents, and holds 40 percent of the world's newspapers, including the Times and News of the World. In the United States, it controls many media heavyweights, including the Wall Street Journal, Fox Television Network, and dozens of TV stations. In addition, more than 70 percent of Australian-based newspapers belong to the corporation. The freedom of the media has become dull and pale in the shade of mergers.

A review article titled "capital is tougher than freedom, Murdoch won" says that the journalists of the United States have to face such a sad fact that they are not God but rather only His followers, and God's name is "Capital."

American scholar W. Lance Bennett said that all political figures and groups, including the president, senators, interest groups and radicals, should realize the importance of the media to their political success. Multinational media groups have not only controlled media outlets but also formed powerful interest groups with the business and political elite to protect their own interests.

Government agencies and the media cooperate with and restrain each other. A politician must know how to use the media wisely and sometimes even need sto pander to the media in order to enhance his or her influence and status with the help of the media.

According to British media reports, Andy Coulson, former editor-in-chief of the News of the World and former director of communications of British Prime Minister David Cameron, was recently arrested over phone hacking. With strong ties in the media world, Coulson played a major role in helping propel Conservative leader Cameron to power in elections last year. Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph's chief political commentator, said that for the past 20 years, the most important thing for all British politicians has been ingratiating themselves to Murdoch.

In order to maximize commercial interests, certain media outlets have used illegal means, such as bugging and bribery to obtain exclusive inside information and policy support. Related government agencies have turned a blind eye to the illegal practices of the media, so as to win their support. The bugging scandal has fully exposed the close and complex ties between the media and the police as well as senior government officials.

Too much freedom of the press has dragged Western democratic countries into a vicious circle of "the media shaping public opinion, public opinion pressuring politicians, and politicians colluding with the media."

At the initial stages of the wars in Iraq and Libya, major media outlets in the United Kingdom and United States provided massive coverage of the multi-state coalitions' victories but ignored the tragic civilian casualties and the brutalities of the wars. Arms companies, media companies and government agencies have formed various communities of interests, using all means possible to shape and control public opinion.

Monopoly is the natural enemy of freedom. Global media groups, which are the beneficiaries of existing mass communication systems and democratic systems, have been making great efforts to cater to the needs of certain domestic social classes and groups by providing limited or even biased coverage and reinforcing the people's negative stereotypes about other countries. The voice of developing countries has long been suppressed by the influential Western media, and the huge information dissemination gap between developed and developing countries has inevitably increased their political and economic disparities.

The media shapes public opinion, but cannot get rid of the influence of politics and economics. The News of the World admitted, "We lost our way," in its final editorial. There is one question for the media: What else has been lost?

By Wang Fang from People's Daily, translated by People's Daily Online

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