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Columns

December 8, 2012

Column: Rupert Murdoch, Big Brother and press freedom

“Big Brother is watching you.” That was the pervasive punch line in British writer George Orwell’s novel, “1984.” Recent developments in Great Britain give fresh currency to the classic.

The blue-ribbon Leveson Inquiry on Nov. 30 issued a comprehensive report damning the behavior and standards of the nation’s mass media in general. In the document, special fire was directed at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, The News of the World, now closed.

Public revelations that the Murdoch family’s firm for years conducted massive hacking into British cellphone information has created enormous continuing controversy, and led to the inquiry.

Targets included cellphones of a murdered young girl and relatives of soldiers killed in action.

There are also allegations of police payoffs by representatives of the firm. In an unusual move, Britain’s political parties united in Parliament to condemn the company.

Meanwhile, on Monday Murdoch announced his News Corp. would be split into two entities. He will be chairman of both but chief executive officer only of one, Fox Entertainment Group.

Patriarch Murdoch’s influence in Britain has been enormous for decades. Politicians across the spectrum fear his power to embarrass or endorse, and have assiduously courted his favor.

Orwell, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, was a committed socialist.

Unlike many on the left today, however, he had personal involvement with working people, because he was one. He stressed egalitarianism, while warning about dangers of concentrated power in government as well as corporations.

The Murdoch snooping scandal is particularly grotesque, and may yet bring down that media empire. However, guarding individual freedom — including privacy from intrusive power structures — represents a more complex, continuing challenge.

Other developments in Britain and also the United States underscore the incipient threats to personal liberty even in free countries.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, after taking office, wisely ended a national identity-card plan.

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