Rupert Murdoch's juicy newspaper scandal will be felt far beyond England and the narrow circle of politicians and editors caught and embarrassed. The hacking scheme that led Murdoch to shut down the News of The World may stifle press freedom across the Atlantic.

The privacy scandal that killed the world’s largest English language newspaper also threatens to dethrone the world’s most powerful media baron.

The more interesting question is whether it will be used as an excuse to muzzle media not just in the United Kingdom, but in the United States and Canada.

“Damage control” doesn’t quite cover the current mode of Rupert Murdoch, the octogenarian press baron who makes Citizen Kane look like an amateur dabbler in the newspaper business. Murdoch’s News Corporation runs newspaper and broadcast empires on three continents. His properties include the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Fox Broadcast, Fox Entertainment and oodles of other companies that shape how we think about our world – and whom we choose to run it.

One of those newspapers, The News of the World, hacked into the private voicemails of celebrities, politicians, a murdered teenager – and got caught.  The scandal bubbled along for five years until July 7, when Murdoch abruptly shut down the tabloid that had 7.5 million regular readers.

Even Murdoch’s best pals are running from him now. Prime Minister David Cameron not only denounced the newspaper at the heart of the scandal, he called for greater regulation of newspapers in general. Cameron had to be seen as the leader on this, as his own former chief of communications was arrested on the weekend in connection with the scandal.

The scandal is juicy and messy – and important. It raises questions about how much politicians pandered to the tabloid press in England, and how far the press will go to maintain an edge in that ruthlessly competitive world.

Rebekah Brooks, the editor in charge of the News of The World, still hadn’t been fired by July 11. In one revealing quote, Brook used the Orwellian term “freelance inquiry agent” to describe the private investigators hired to conduct research that properly belongs to journalists. Even the Guardian, an upstanding broadsheet that has driven the scandal against the News, refused to denounced the use of private investigators, saying that Guardian reporters cannot hire investigators without the permission of editors.

Canadian journalists profess shock. We instantly condemned the tactics of our colleagues across the water, but the lines are not quite as clear as we would like here either. We pay fixers overseas to help us find stories that we simply can’t get ourselves. Here in Canada we pay researchers to file requests for public records. We disclose these relationships – most of the time – and they never involve invasion of privacy or breeches of criminal law. We hope.

We should be examining those relationships for any hint of impropriety, for the storm of backlash against the press in England is sure to wash up here.


Kelly Toughill is an associate professor of journalism at the University of King's College and founder of Polestar Immigration Research Inc.