Degrees of guilt by association

Phone-hacking, cover-ups and possible police corruption have understandably dominated the media over the past week. I have nothing to add to the main thrust of the issues other than to add to the praise of Nick Davies and the Guardian, who have shown that the news media can still be a force for good.

One particular area that has interested me in this is the extent to which different advertisers and audiences are disassociating themselves from the criminal and immoral centre of the actions (NB: Of course, at this stage, the seniority of the culpable hasn’t been fully identified).

The epicentre is the News of the World in the mid 2000s. While there were many employees that had nothing to do with these actions (though some might still question the ethics of people working for tabloids of this nature), this is the centre of the guilt.

Then there is the News of the World in 2011. Today is its last edition. The Max Mosley and John Higgins cases show the newspaper’s record remains far from spotless, but the people most closely identified with the criminal actions have moved on. This hasn’t stopped people from criticising/abusing current staff members for working for the title. Furthermore, due to the unravelling of the issues from the mid 2000s, many advertisers that were accepting of the general tone of the paper pulled out. As such, the paper announced it would be donating all ad space to charities. Some charities wanted nothing to do with the paper; others took the pragmatic decision to accept reaching a potential 7.5m readers.

At the next level is News International, where Rebekah Brooks (editor of the News of the World 2000-2003) is Chief Executive. Columnists on other News International papers such as Caitlin Moran and Giles Coren have spoken of the hate they’ve received, where they’ve virtually been accused of murdering Milly Dowler themselves.

Further up, there is News Corp Europe & Asia, where James Murdoch is Chairman and Chief Executive. At this level, there is a campaign from Mumsnet for organisations to remove all connections with News Corp, while there have been renewed calls for the UK government to block the proposed takeover of BSkyB.

Finally, you have News Corporation worldwide, led by Rupert Murdoch. Some commentators have used this episode to renew their hostility to the company for the operations of other companies, such as Fox News. One of the few valid things that Peter McMullen said in his Newsnight confrontation with Steve Coogan and Greg Dyke was that Coogan had previously accepted money from Fox Studios in order to make his films.

The Murdochs attempted to “cut off the cancerous limb” at the level of the News of the World title itself (which many are saying was going to happen anyway). But the links between parent and subsidiary brands are complex, and the above links show that News Corp have been far from successful in managing the crisis.

Until the courts can (hopefully) decisively prove the level of knowledge within the organisation, there is no fixed moral or ethical line regarding the association of advertisers and audiences with the various levels of News Corp. The troubles at News Corp could go right to the top, or they could once again be resilient in the face of adversity. But perhaps for the first time, they cannot directly control their fate. Advertisers will act with their budgets and audiences will act with their eyeballs and wallets. Both traditional and social media can amplify early trends, and the final outcome remains to be seen.

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Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/plashingvole/5911657213

Disclosure: My employer has in the past conducted work for Sky. I have never personally worked with or for any News Int or News Corp companies, though I do know several people employed by them

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2 Responses

  1. I think the public is making up its mind about the links between the various Murdoch brands and entities based on what they are seeing them do now as much as what they allegedly did a few years ago.

    For example it was only public outcry that stopped NI from allowing the person who was in charge at the time (Brooks) to head the investigation into the matter – the absurdity of which was clear to everyone except the company itself. And there are now allegations that an NI exec deleted millions of emails earlier this year – at a time when the company insisted it was cooperating with police. At the next level up, James Murdoch has only this week admitted (because he had to) that he paid people to keep schtum and misled parliament.

    Then there’s the failure of other News Int/News Corp outlets to properly report the scandal until the crescendo of outrage forced them to.

    No one can change what happened in the past but the parent companies can make sure they handle the consequences properly now – and their apparent failure to do so is one of the things they will be judged on.

    So I think that Mumsnet (for example) has been right to frame this as an issue about News Corp and not just the News of the World. The advertiser boycott focusing only on the News of the World gave News Corp the opportunity to be seen to cut out the cancer while actually protecting those who have questions to answer.

    Ultimately it’s up to the public how “complex” the links are between the parent and subsidiary brands. My sense is they won’t have much truck with these distinctions, or be fooled by the ditching of one toxic brand. Rather, I suspect that their view will echo that of the Church of England, an investor in News Corp, which raised its concerns yesterday in a statement saying: “We cannot imagine circumstances in which we would be satisfied with any outcome that does not hold senior executives to account at News Corporation for the gross failures of management at the News of the World.”

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Robert, I think we’re pretty much in agreement. The tide of disgust has certainly gone beyond the NOTW now, but it is centred on specific individuals rather than brands. As you mention, the public have no truck with distinctions and my suspicion is that they will continue to buy the Times, pay for their Sky subscriptions etc (possibly without even realising the links). However, the corporate side has the financial power to make this a company-wide issue and it will be interesting to see the extent to which the NI/NC boards are sacrificed/held to account (would brands buy space in the Sun on Sunday, with Rebekah Brooks overseeing it, for instance).

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