EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 8, 2012

Column: Rupert Murdoch, Big Brother and press freedom

Arthur I. Cyr
Scripps Howard News Service

---- — “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.

An embedded microchip linked to biometric data would have facilitated bureaucratic snooping. Another proposal for email and Internet surveillance has sparked intense debate.

A wit once quipped that “1984” was really about 1948, a reference to the Stalinist dictatorships in the time the novel was published. An open economy under the rule of law helps limit potential abuse.

Modern Britain has avoided dictatorship, and the effects of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “Big Bang” deregulation of the economy were important in facilitating freedom. Her heavy-handed style earned her the sobriquet “Big Sister,” but the reforms were crucial to Britain’s economic recovery and reassertion of international influence starting in the 1980s.

Apple leader Steve Jobs, not long before his death, gave particular emphasis to protecting customer privacy in announcing a new version of the iPhone. His stance highlights how concentrated corporate power can rival that of the state, and provide comparable threats.

Products that facilitate freedom are now major Apple marketing themes. The company in 2010 surpassed Microsoft in total capitalization, which is a major accomplishment for a firm that floundered when co-founder Jobs was forced out in 1985; he returned in 1997.

Meanwhile, competitor Google has faced embarrassing accusations that extensive information has been collected on individuals.

Murdoch and crew require continued investigation. Two of his former senior executives are now charged with criminal phone hacking.

The Leveson Report’s proposed media oversight should be approached cautiously.

Britain already has strict libel laws and one of the world’s strongest traditions of the rule of law.

Big Brother lurks in both public and private corridors. Keep him out of powerful rooms in either sector.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at acyr@carthage.edu.