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Best of 2011: Consumers rule in Murdoch's evil empire


News of the WorldIf ever we needed proof of the public's complicity in the News of the World debacle, it came on Wednesday when Wendi Deng defended her husband, Rupert Murdoch, against a foam attack.

It was just the thing to distract an easily-bored public from the rigours of a Parliamentary inquiry: the beautiful, much younger wife sitting stoically by her husband, pouring him a glass of water, stroking his back, and then inflicting a fierce blow upon the interloper who tries to land a plate of foam in his face.

This incident should have been nothing more than a brief disruption to an otherwise sombre hearing in which the contrite Murdochs defended themselves before a parliamentary committee. Instead, it became the lead story, electrifying the Twitterverse, blog sites and online newspaper forums even before Deng had returned to her seat.

'This should put an end to the trophy wife talk' Tweeted @tommynak. 'Hear me roar! Mess with my husband? Oh no you don't!' said the Wendi Deng: Kickass Facebook page, one of many tribute sites that cropped up within hours of the incident. 'Murdoch's wife is an Internet sensation' declared the Hindustan Times online.

Even as Murdoch tried vainly to restore his media empire's credibility in the eyes of a sanctimonious parliament and public, condemning the culture of phone hacking at his now-defunct NOTW, here was the public setting the agenda for tonight's news bulletins, declaring its priorities so that editors of the popular media were in no doubt as to which angle they would follow.

Never before has the public had more say in what material it consumes, more influence over which stories it would like to read, or a greater choice of outlets from which to source its news. Thanks to the digital revolution, there is now a well-established interface between journalists and their readers, politicians and their constituents, celebrities and their admirers.

Despite this, the public was quick to claim ignorance and roundly condemn the theft of private information by NOTW: the intellectual elite implied that it had been acquired for the consumption of 'low class' readers, despite the fact that 39 per cent of the newspaper's readership fell into the middle-class demographic.

And the 2.7 million people who were known to have bought a copy of the newspaper each week, consolidating its status as Britain's top-selling Sunday newspaper, were conspicuous by their absence, unwilling to acknowledge that their appetite for lurid gossip and scandalous stories had effectively guaranteed the newspaper's success.

These were people who'd had the chance to voice their opposition to phone hacking when the practice first came to light several years ago; and if not then, at least in early June, when actress Sienna Miller received a payout from News Corporation as compensation for the hacking of her voicemail.

Ignorance is no longer an excuse, especially in these post-Princess Diana years where the role of the paparazzi, traitorous friends and dodgy journalists in obtaining 'Diana exclusives' is well-known to any consumer of news.

But the instant availability of information on the internet, and society's regular incursions into domains that were once private — family photographs on Facebook, sex tapes on Youtube, streams-of-consciousness on Twitter — have given rise to an appetite for soundbites that will deliver an instant, deeply gratifying hit.

Consequently, readers are gaining the upper hand over journalists when it comes to shaping and interpreting news, especially online. Their preferences have resulted in a dumbing down of popular media, where trite articles (Masterchef eliminations, Miranda Kerr's post-baby figure) are given more prominence than serious reportage and analysis (Africa's famine, Pakistani police executions).

There is no doubt that readers influence the ongoing coverage of events, as evidenced by the hugely popular 'Vancouver riot kissers', and the Sydney toddler Rahma El-Dennaoui, who is virtually unknown despite the fact that she was abducted from her home in 2005 and, like Madeleine McCann, has never been found.

The 'customer' is always right, and this tendency to empathise with one story and ignore another is proof that readers will shape their own agendas and their responses to news, often limiting themselves to a small — and dubiously-obtained — range of content in the process.

'How do we understand why people around the world found themselves in solidarity with the protesters in Tahir [in Egypt], when they pretty much missed the protests in Tunisia, which ... had some very similar causes, but which were almost invisible?' asks Ethan Zuckerman, incoming Director of MIT's Centre for Civic Media, on ABC Radio's Future Tense program.

'And how did it [happen] again so that by the time we're in Bahrain or Syria a lot of that interest has fallen off? Can we figure something out about the way the media works and how our interests work?'

These are good questions, and ones we might well ask of the people who are happy to consume tainted material as long as no-one tells them where it came from. 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist with Jesuit Communications and a contributing travel writer for The Weekend Australian. 

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Rupert Murdoch, News International, News of the World, phone hacking scandal



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Existing comments

We all have them media, Governments and society we deserve! Every country and all people have the ability to change for the better, it may be more difficult for some but change remains possible for all. A rotten apple does not justify to cut down the apple tree. The Murdoch empire is as evil as the church, as both, the church and the media empires have crooks amongst them.

Beat Odermatt | 11 January 2012  

True there is evil amongst all empires, however parallels between the Church and Murdoch seems a long bow to draw. It is very hard to change when some major Australian cities have one Murdoch owned paper and TV and radio stations that flood the minds of people, particularly the young. If it was not for ABC24, you would hardly hear a thing about this absolute invasion of privacy committed by criminals. Luckily the News Limited newspapers in Australia are that inaccurate in their reporting that it is improbable that it is happening here. Congratulations to Ms Marshall on her article.

Frank Waugh | 17 January 2012  

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