There’s something satisfying in knowing that Mazher Mahmood has had a comeuppance of sorts. The reporter and undercover journalist who posed as an ‘agent provocateur’ to expose the match-fixing during Pakistan’s tour of England in 2010 today finds himself unemployed. His employer, the UK-based News of the World (NOTW), wound up operations last week after a series of phone hacking scandals rocked the notorious British tabloid and forced it to close. With a career spent refining the art of entrapment and illegal surveillance, Mr Mahmood is probably too busy writing his next tell-all (or otherwise gagged by non-disclosure agreements) to reflect on the ethics of NOTW and the scruples of its owner Mr Rupert Murdoch. But not this columnist. For a nation that is fast coming to take corruption as a given, there are several lessons for Pakistan as we watch the drama unfold.
Even though Mr Murdoch was quick to shut down the tabloid, the tactics of NOTW have attracted global condemnation and they are now beginning to have a broader impact on Mr Murdoch’s business interests. In as little as four days since the scandal erupted, his company has lost seven billion dollars in value as the corruption at the heart of the fourth estate in Blighty comes to the forefront. No surprise then that a company that also gives us the fair and balanced reporting of Fox News seems to have tripped over itself in its eagerness to please the reader.
Is it possible that shutting down NOTW was a little too hasty? It may have made us Pakistanis hang our heads in shame, but one cannot help but wonder whether Mr Murdoch caved in a little too quickly to public pressure. With an estimated fortune of US$6.3 billion, Mr Murdoch is certainly not going to the poorhouse anytime soon. So why not take a slap on the wrist and duke it out with litigants? For once, it seems that the political clout and influence of Mr Murdoch cannot compare with a parliament that stands united in its censure of NOTW. However, it is possible that immediate closure of NOTW may not have been because of the probe into Mr Murdoch’s business interests, but his personal ones. Indeed, the NOTW phone hacking scandal hasn’t just exposed the unethical behavior of the British media, but also makes a compelling case for the executive, judiciary and legislature to not be glove in hand with the press.
For example, the British Prime Minister David Cameron has been accused of making a contract with NOTW to trade political support before the election for government favours afterwards if the Conservative Party won. The accusers suspect that the Tories had been tailoring its policies on media regulation to suit the commercial interests of Mr Murdoch, and that the paper’s aggressive support for the Tories is a pay-off that could spread to other parts of mass media. There have also been accusations of other favours that Mr.Murdoch doled out to politicians in exchange for facilitation of his corporate agenda. Amidst sightings of Rupert Murdoch seen slipping out the back door of No 10 Downing Street on the morning after David Cameron became prime minister; there has also been outrage over the retention of a disgraced former NOTW editor as Communications Director at No 10.
If the standards of ethics and impartiality were not already obliterated, questions over other favours given by Mr Murdoch are dogging the government which wants nothing more than to wash its hands off Mr Murdoch. It is said that as first the NOTW and its holding company started to turn toxic, David Cameron and Ed Milliband frantically waved their hands through the air above their heads. “Look, no strings” they seemed to cry. But experts suggest the truth is that Murdoch had politicians dancing like puppets for far too long. And as startling new revelations are being made every day, the global community stands aghast at the manner in which intra-state relations are conducted within the United Kingdom. Take the free flights British politicians are said to have accepted to hold private talks with the media baron on his luxury yacht off a Greek island; or the bribing of police officials and Royal household staff for information used to invade the privacy of others. With the public outcry against Mr Murdoch, more people are recognising that the antics of NOTW are not just the amoral actions of some lone private investigator tied to a rogue newspaper, they are the immoral and almost certainly criminal deeds of an organisation that was appallingly led and had completely lost sight of any idea of decency or shared humanity.
The scandal surrounding the British government and media sounds a lot like the corrupt and unfair practices within institutions in Pakistan, but that’s the karma for a company that chooses to live dangerously. Now a parliamentary committee has asked Mr Murdoch and several of his close associates to testify before it next week. The seven billion dollar question is, will he show up?
The writer is a consultant on public policy.