Rupert Murdoch, a majority shareholder for News Corporation, is without a doubt the most influential individual in the world of media. News Corporation owns major newspaper and news companies, including The Wall Street Journal, FOX News, and News International. Therefore, it came as a great shock when News International was found affiliated with a scandal involving illegally obtained information.
On July 21, Rupert Murdoch resigned from his place in the board of directors for News International due to accusations of hacking the phones of celebrities, politicians, and civilians for stories. It was a clear breach of ethical codes of journalism and Murdoch had to step back from his place in the British media. While there is no doubt that what they did was unethical, the incident has shed new light on the Wikileaks incident as well as the role of journalism as the fourth estate.
Just two years ago, Wikileaks was the center of all media sources. This whistle-blowing website, founded by Julian Assange, obtained information through personnel within governments and organizations. In the words of these governments, their information was obtained through espionage. In a strictly legal sense, Julian Assange was disclosing information that was illegally obtained.
Both Wikileaks and News International were responsible and guilty of illegally obtaining information with intent to release it to the public. However, the general reaction to these two organizations was completely different. While Murdoch and his media empire was reproached for their actions, Assange and Wikileaks were praised and awarded with A New Media Award from Amnesty International.
If both organizations were responsible for such acts, why was it that one was praised and considered morally gray while one was considered morally black with no room for debate? The answer to this question is significant because it differentiates what acts can be justified in journalism from what cannot. Moreover, it establishes what the role of the fourth estate is.
The difference between these two organizations is their “cause.” Each organization had an objective when they were trying to publicize illegally obtained information. News International’s objective was to acquire provocative scandals of politicians, celebrities, and the general public. It was seeking popularity and readers’ interest at the price of individuals’ privacies. On the other hand, Wikileaks’ objective was to tackle the problem of secrecy in major organizations and corporations. It sought to battle problems like corruption and insider trading. Wikileaks’ cause was for the benefit of the public while News International was trying to get an exclusive scoop for their benefit. This is more than a problem of being selfish or not. It is about whether the news was fulfilling its role as the press.
There is a reason why people regard journalism and the press as the fourth estate. As a system designed to inform people of what they should know, the press carries a responsibility to fulfill people’s right to know. The quality and amount of information exposed to the public is directly correlated with the level of public awareness. Since democracy thrives on the awareness of the citizens willing to vote and participate, it is not a stretch to say that journalism establishes the very foundation of a successful democracy.
With such consequences on its shoulder, journalism and the press must always put the public’s interest as its priority. The moment News International decided to put its own interest before the interest of the public, it decided to abandon its role as the fourth estate. While Wikileaks went out of the law’s way to meet its ends, it did strictly keep in line with its duty to inform the citizens for their interest.
Until now, the questions and criticisms directed at News International have been focused on the act of illegally obtaining information. However, comparisons with Wikileaks clarify the real problem at hand. The real problem is whether News International obtained such information in the interest of the public. Prosecution will solve the problem of phone tapping. The public must now seek to solve the problem of our fourth estate.