It’s hard to have pity for Rupert Murdoch, who decided that retreat is the best—and probably only—course of action and withdrew his bid for the 60.9% of BskyB that he doesn’t already control. General Murdoch’s decision to withdraw and regroup is, of course, a direct result of the odious phone-hacking scandal that ripped through News International, News Corp’s British subsidiary, and threatened to cross the Atlantic. The immediate reaction in most quarters is—just desserts. However, there’s one dimension of this disgraceful episode that deserves a beam of positive light: It is the healthy distance between the British press and those it covers.
Let’s be very clear. Hacking into the telephones of politicians and many of the other common practices of the British tabs—checkbook journalism, disguised reporters, secret cameras, and so on—are nothing more than cheap tricks. And what comes out of it is usually sleaze by any ordinary standard. But you cannot accuse the tabloids of being overly cozy with the governing classes, can you? It’s this adversarial relationship that is worth salvaging once all the official inquiries are done (and once Rupert has fired all the people associated with this mess).
Fear and distance has been a healthy aspect of British journalism since Edmund Burke, the English philosopher, first used the term “Fourth Estate” in 1787. The press was the equal of society’s other institutions—at that time the nobility, the clergy, and the merchants. This was Burke’s meaning. It had a certain sovereignty and independence. In the best of outcomes the scribbling classes were not to be influenced by the governing classes; at times the press was to be feared for its power.
The concept has eroded since those days such that you hardly ever even hear the term used anymore. But if it survives anywhere in useful form, Britain must be counted among the places it does. This is the consequence of two things you find among British journalists: A long tradition of independence and the relatively strong National Union of Journalists. Both give a sense of identity a visiting American cannot help but notice.
It is not the same in America. There is no similarly long (or strong) tradition here, and The Newspaper Guild, the editorial employees’ union, is scarcely a union at all. (Ask any member.) For many journalists, identity derives from the cult of the expert. And the cult of the expert, which dates from Walter Lippmann’s days in the 1920s, too often means that reporters and editors consider themselves to be among the same elite they are covering. This is an especially pernicious phenomenon in Washington, as any honest Washington reporter will tell you.
One doubts Burke was thinking of press barons such as Murdoch, who has plenty of friends in government , when he coined his famous term; certainly he knew nothing of phone hacking. He called the press the Fourth Estate when newspapers were first permitted to cover the House of Commons—a breakthrough at the time—and reporters sat separately in the gallery.
It’s the separate seating, so to speak, that’s worth saving. The British press needs a cleanup—no one would argue against that. But as the government of David Cameron begins its inquiries, the independent tradition that produces a lot of good coverage, as well as sleaze, ought not be lost.
More on the News Corp scandal from The Fiscal Times: