Social Media and the fall of the Murdoch Empire
As the Leveson inquiry rattles on, every day seems to uncover a new angle to what can truly be called a scandal (today whether Rupert Murdoch is a fit and proper owner for BSkyB)- proving once again that sometimes truth really is more bizarre than fiction. Headline-writers had a field day when it emerged that the Met Police had ‘loaned’ ex-News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, a horse. In the midst of allegations of bribery, corruption and inappropriate relations between the media empire and the police force, this slightly surreal turn of events did nothing to stem the rising tide of evidence against News International.
Events took another dramatic turn when James Murdoch resigned as News International’s Executive Chairman. The official line was that it was to focus on ‘international television’ but it’s clear that the only way the Murdoch empire might truly recover from this mess is with a clean slate – a new paper (the Sun on Sunday) and a new public face. Which may potentially be another Murdoch.
One of the most compelling things about the Leveson inquiry has been the extent to which the voice of the people – communicating via social media – has been driving the agenda. The crumbling of the public façade of News International is a sign of the real-time age we live in, a time where the public has access to endless channels through which to come together and speak directly to those who previously had a cosy monopoly of power and influence. Public backlashes are almost impossible to ignore these days, as the power of what used to be called ‘the mob’ in the 19th Century leverages technology to make its voice heard. This is the technologically advanced version of the petition or rally. If hundreds of thousands join a Facebook group in protest against something, or start a Twitter hashtag that trends worldwide, it is very difficult for the organization concerned, or indeed the government, to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.
When the phone hacking scandal first arose last year, it was mass online protest that initially pushed advertisers to withdraw their investment in News of the World. In a world where brand values are so quickly damaged by a bad reputation online, no one wanted to be associated publically with a newspaper that consumers so violently turned against. This is turn quickly led to the drastic step of closing the paper – the online world had very quickly demonstrated that a paper with no advertisers and a vastly depleted readership could not stay afloat without damaging greater interests.
Perhaps a few years ago, News International could have weathered this storm, ignoring these concerns in the same way it ignored the questions of the Select committee it appeared before. It could have released statements, apologized to those involved, paid off those who were making noise and continued to control the story from its own point of view. But the world of information flow – which includes publishing but also extends far wider – is in such a state of revolution that an approach based on the arrogance of control simply doesn’t work anymore.
Twitter, Facebook (Audioboo even) and the thousands of other channels available online give anyone the ability to broadcast to a potentially massive audience. If you don’t like the version of a story told by a newspaper – whether you are a member of the public, or a well-known face wronged in the phone hacking scandal – you can speak straight to a connected world and share your own version of events in a matter of seconds.
This is what has been News International’s ultimate downfall – its disgrace has been a very social one, played out in a public arena akin to the popularity of independent publishers 150 years ago. No amount of professional media spin can now bottle and contain what has been exposed. And we can only hope that such a case study in the alliance of old fashioned journalism (The Guardian et al) and real-time networked outrage (Twitter) will help us all make the world a slightly better place.