< More Questions for News Corp

Transcript

Friday, November 11, 2011

 [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:

From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And I'm Brooke Gladstone.

MP TOM WATSON:

You’re familiar with the word “mafia.”

JAMES MURDOCH:

Yes, Mr. Watson.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This week News International executive James Murdoch was roughed up by British MP Tom Watson and the Parliamentary committee investigating his company's phone hacking scandal.

For those who watched the previous round of hearings, Murdoch's performance was familiar. He continued to claim to have been in the dark about the pervasive culture of skullduggery at News Corp, the company he runs, which led Watson to compare him to a clueless capo.

MP TOM WATSON:

Mr. Murdoch, you must be the first Mafia boss in history who didn't know he was running a criminal enterprise.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So how did a global media magnate’ son come to be slammed as an Aussie Don Corleone, or maybe Fredo? It started last July when the Murdoch-owned British tabloid News of the World was shuttered after the paper was found to have routinely hacked into voice mails to get scoops.

Since then a broader picture of misconduct has emerged. It seems that many more people were eavesdropped on than anyone knew. The estimate is now around 5,000. And not just public figures but ordinary Britons too. The resulting outrage has put the entire British media on trial, and a panel has been appointed to look into stricter regulations for the newspaper industry.

Alan Rusbridger is editor of The Guardian, the paper that broke the phone hacking story. He says that when the ugly truth first surfaced, the Murdoch family tried to scare off lawmakers who sought to punish News International.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

A lot of the MPs who were most vociferous in pressing this case have now come out and said that at various points they've been threatened.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

It was often said that Murdoch papers could make or break a campaign.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

That's why Tony Blair, when he became Prime Minister, traveled all way to Australia to address a Murdoch conference. People believe that you couldn’t get elected without Murdoch.

You had papers that set a tone of the debate, and if they didn't like you they could make life very uncomfortable for you, including, as we now know, this sort of criminal underworld who would dig into the private life of people in your party, or whatever. So these were bad people to make an enemy of.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So lay out the parameters of the trial of the British media.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

There’s this very big inquiry headed by a, a judge - the Leveson inquiry - which is looking at standards and ethics across the British press. And what we’ve seen so far is some very barnstorming speeches from tabloid editors who are standing up and saying, this is out-of-touch judge, with out-of-touch retired posh press advisors who don’t understand the tabloids, and we have to stand defiantly in front of these judges to stand up for press freedom and fight off any greater regulation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Well, the self-regulating British press is overseen by a board of press people. The chairman of the Codes Committee is the editor of The Daily Mail, not exactly a paragon of journalism either.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

That's what this committee's going to look at. The question is if you're gonna have regulation then it has to mean something. The judge will be looking at not state licensing of newspapers but how you make sure that everybody will be compelled to give the evidence that the regulation needs and where the regulator can impose sanctions.

Now, I'm sure to American ears this sounds extraordinary. I’ve never yet met an American journalist who can understand why the British press puts up with any kind of regulation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I have to say that I am in this camp. It seems the best that I think we can hope for is to suck it up when an unbounded press oversteps its bounds so that it can do its job when it's functioning the way it ought to function.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

I think the difference between the British and other markets - so we had a debate recently where we had Carl Bernstein, who was essentially making the First Amendment, the press needs to be completely free, and we had a French journalist who said, well in France essentially we don’t have a tabloid press, so we don’t have the problem.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Well, la dee da!

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

[LAUGHS] In America you have a tabloid press but it tends to be a weekly kind of a supermarket press. You don’t have –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Well, we have The New York Post, a Murdoch property.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

The New York Post is much more in, in British context, a – a mid-market tabloid. So you –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Not a scandal sheet.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

It’s not a scandal – so you’ve got something which mixes entertainment and news. And what you saw in the phone hacking saga was two things. One, you saw the techniques, leaping the firewall from celebrity reporting to political reporting, to reporting on anybody. And also saw this situation where the police themselves felt intimidated.

So there's one argument that just says leave the police to regulate. There is a law against this stuff, so you don’t need a regulator. But the police themselves were frightened of the papers. I mean, that – that’s the strong suspicion.

I think realistically, after the kind of scandal that’s been revealed, we’re gonna have a tightening of regulation. It’s the press’ job to make sure that the judge understands that whatever he comes up with is not going to inhibit serious investigative journalism of the sort that we all know when we see it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Do you think that the ones that have been considered so far would threaten the way The Guardian does business?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

I haven’t seen anything so far that would threaten what we do. In the end, it comes onto this very slippery notion of what the public interest is. And I think if you can go before a judge or a regulator and say, look, this is why this story was in the public interest, you should be okay.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So we can't trust the police, but we can trust the judges.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

Well, I don’t trust anybody, no. And the judges are as fallible as anybody else.

But, on the other hand, we got into a very bad situation where one or two newspapers have done such unpleasant things, that they’ve saddled the rest of us with the consequences.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Alan, thank you very much.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER:

You’re welcome.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Alan Rusbridger is the editor of The Guardian newspaper.