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Gary Herman

nowthankyouandbyeAt first sight, the phone hacking scandal that led to the demise of the world's best-selling English language newspaper, the News of the World, does not seem to be an issue of diversity. After all, Rupert Murdoch's media empire is driven less by ideology than by commerce, and the logic of the closure is simple - the News of the World had become a toxic brand whose poison may have spread to other parts of the empire unless it was amputated like a gangrenous limb.

 

In particular, Murdoch must have worried what the impact of the NotW affair might have been on his current attempt to buy the 61 percent of the UK satellite broadcaster BSkyB that his company does not already own. TV is where the money is today, not newspapers. Back in the 1950s, the News of the World's sales topped 8 million and it was reckoned that half the population of Great Britain read a copy every week. By 2011, with weekly sales of 2.6 million, the NotW had become a dying brand.

So why am I writing about this affair on the Media Diversity Institute's website?

The answer is actually quite simple. At MDI, we are interested in the way different groups in society are represented in the media. Of course, that includes whether they are represented at all. Tabloid newspapers across the world frequently ignore or under-represent the ethnic groups and minorities that make up much of any society.

Murdoch companies have led the way in creating a model of the popular press which is not just celebrity and scandal driven, but which is almost exclusively monocultural. In the West, the monoculture is typically the white working class (or to be more precise, the white heterosexual working class), although in countries with a complex class structure it may sometimes stray into the territory of the lower middle class.

I checked the News of the World website just after the closure was announced. There was a column of pictures on the righthand side of each page on the site. I counted 60 faces in these pictures. There were four Afro-Caribbeans and four Asians, mostly sports  celebrities; the other 52 were white. Women and men were fairly evenly divided, there were no disabled people and only six over-forties. Of course, this tells you nothing about the NotW's coverage which, in recent months, had been generally pretty harmless.

It sometimes even tackled diversity-related issues head on when, for example, ageism or sexism disrupted the otherwise well-ordered world of love rats, sporting triumphs, royal weddings and celebrity divorces that are meat and drink to the tabloid dream machine.

Publications like the News of the World are not really newspapers at all and, for the mostrupertm part, they steer away from anything that smacks of the real lives of real people. This is why the phone hacking scandal only became potentially disastrous for the Murdochs so late in the day. When people found out that the hacking didn't just involve celebrities, the scandal erupted into reality. The murder victim, Milly Dowler, the families of those killed by the 7/7 suicide bombers in London and the relatives of troops killed in action were ordinary people in tragic circumstances and readers know the difference between them and celebrity tabloid fodder.

But the apparently unstoppable slide of the news media towards a fantasy world often leaves people who are desperate to see their lives acknowledged and validated more desperate still. In the US, the failure of the news media in general, and the tabloids in particular, to adequately represent or reflect the lives of ordinary people has led to the growth of a vital and increasingly popular ethnic and minority press. As the mainstream media elsewhere increasingly becomes a wing of the entertainment industry, we can expect to see the same thing happening across the world.

Rupert Murdoch, as ever, is ahead of the pack. His attempts to acquire the whole of BSkyB have already seen him agree to hive off Sky News to an independent trust. After all, news has not been his real interest for many years.

Since I wrote this piece, the BSkyB bid has been temporarily halted in its tracks and Murdoch has withdrawn his offer to hive off Sky News. A friend wrote to me the other day apologising in case Murdoch had been arrested by the time I received the email. Regrettably, perhaps, he wasn't.

I've also followed the discussion about the NotW on the BBC and was interested to learn that Murdoch had decided to give away all profits earned by the last ever edition of the paper to charity. He also gave away advertising space in the last edition to charities. They were mostly rather obscure charities, because the big ones all had a policy to boycott

Murdoch papers. One of the charities that did advertise was called New Family Social. It's purpose is to support gay couples wishing to become parents. A spokesman told the BBC that New Family Social would never normally think of advertising in the NotW because the newspaper was notoriously anti-gay. He defended the charity's decision to accept Murdoch's offer only because, under such exceptional circumstances, the paper might actually attract a few sympathetic readers.

The world turned upside down, indeed.

Gary Herman for Media Diversity Institute


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