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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