By Steve Macek and Mitchell Szczepanczyk
The British tabloid, News of the World, owned by conservative media-mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., has been implicated since 2005 in intercepting voicemails of celebrities and politicians. But recently the newspaper has been swept up in explosive new allegations that its staff also intercepted voicemails of victims of the July 7, 2005, London bombing, of relatives of deceased British soldiers, and of a 13-year-old murdered girl.
Ramifications snowballed. Within a week of the new allegations, Murdoch closed News of the World after 168 years of operation, firing the paper's 200 employees. A class-action lawsuit filed in March against Murdoch about lax oversight was quickly amended to include the new allegations, and News Corp.’s stock lost $10 billion in value in the scandal’s first two weeks. The company's top U.K. executive, Rebekah Brooks, has tendered her resignation, and the scandal derailed an attempt by Murdoch to secure majority control of BSkyB, Britain's largest satellite broadcaster. The scandal has also impacted the head of Scotland Yard, who resigned once ties between News of the World and Scotland Yard became known.
But the Murdoch media empire extends across the world and the scandal may well have repercussions on this side of the Atlantic. News of the World is alleged to have paid a New York police officer to secure voicemails of victims of the 9/11 attacks, and the FBI has apparently opened an investigation. What's more, the editor of Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal who served as the editor at News of the World during the time of voicemail intercepts has also resigned in disgrace.
Clearly, Murdoch must face accountability for crimes committed under his watch, and one way the U.S. government could hold him accountable would be to repeal News Corp's TV broadcast licenses.
By law, American TV stations must be licensed by the FCC, and those licenses carry a requirement of having to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity.” Theoretically, the FCC has power to take away the license of any broadcaster who fails to live up to this standard (though the FCC has historically never exercised this power without being ordered to do so by courts).
The idea of stripping News Corp of its TV licenses already has gained traction in the wake of the voicemail scandal. Murdoch reacts to license challenges about as well as werewolves do a full moon. When the FCC threatened a single Murdoch TV license in 1997, Murdoch's chief lobbyist threatened then-FCC-chair Reed Hundt, saying that Hundt wouldn't be able to "get a job as a dog catcher" if he pulled even a single Murdoch TV license.
But Murdoch is now in the hot seat and the window for broadcast license renewals (and rejections) begins next year. Moreover, the FCC is already considering pending license challenges affecting a number of stations in Chicago, Milwaukee, Wisc., and Portland, Ore. Some of those stations are Fox affiliates. (Full disclosure: One of the co-authors of this op-ed is a party to one of those challenges.) Given the speed with which News Corp's voicemail hacking scandal has developed, prompt action by the FCC will be required, and we encourage the FCC to use its power to withdraw licenses of broadcasters owned by criminals.
Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College and Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 8/11