One of the few values Rupert Murdoch and I share is the importance of a free press.
I’m sure we would both agree that it is an unimpeachable right, especially in a day and age when few pure freedoms still exist in this country. We recognize that, if we lose free expression in the media, we will have lost everything. And, perhaps most important, we understand that in the quest to protect this freedom, boundaries must be pushed.
The way in which we push those boundaries, however, is where we differ. I test limits by publishing controversial material and paying people who are willing to step forward and expose political hypocrisy. Murdoch’s minions, on the other hand, pushed limits by allegedly engaging in unethical or criminal activity: phone hacking, bribery, coercing criminal behavior and betraying the trust of their readership. If News Corp.’s reported wrongdoings are true, what Murdoch’s company has been up to does not just brush against boundaries — it blows right past them.
One cannot live off the liberty and benefits of a free press while ignoring the privacy of the people. People such as Murdoch and I, as heads of publishing conglomerates, have a responsibility to maintain and respect this boundary. While Murdoch may understand the significance of what we do under the umbrella of free speech, he may fail to recognize the liability attached to publication. Simply put, he publishes what he wants, apparently regardless of how he gets information and heedless of the responsibility associated with the power he wields.
Murdoch’s enterprises have consistently published stories about people who did not give permission to have their private lives dissected in the media — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. News Corp. employees allegedly hired known criminals to obtain private information about former British prime minister Gordon Brown when his infant son was given a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. News Corp. employees allegedly hired investigators who hacked into the phones of victims of the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the July 7, 2005, bombings in London. And News Corp. employees allegedly paid police officers for illegally obtained information about the queen. Meanwhile, Roger Ailes, chief of Murdoch’s Fox News, runs a well-oiled propaganda machine.
So it only seems fair that Murdoch was forced to close the News of the World tabloid, that he has had to abandon his bid for British Sky Broadcasting and that his reputation, not stellar to begin with, is forever tarnished.
No matter how offensive or distasteful some people may find Hustler magazine and my other publications, no one has appeared unwillingly in their pages. I do not create sensationalism at the expense of people living private lives. Yes, I have offered money to those willing to expose hypocritical politicians — one of those offers, in 1998, resulted in the resignation of Bob Livingston, a Republican congressman from Louisiana who voted to impeach President Bill Clinton despite his own extramarital affairs. I focus not on those who are innocent, but rather on those who practice the opposite of what they very publicly preach. This may be considered an extreme or controversial practice in getting a story, but it is far from criminal.
On a daily basis, and in ways that the general public does not even recognize, our right to privacy is disappearing rapidly. Our political leaders allow companies such as Google and Facebook to continually infringe on this right. Both of those companies serve as data mines, selling information about their users. Facebook, behind a mask of individual privacy settings, has almost single-handedly killed privacy; founder Mark Zuckerberg has actually stated, according to reports, that he doesn’t believe in privacy. The government needs to get back to its roots: protecting the privacy of its citizens while encouraging the individual freedoms on which this country was founded.
Freedom of the press and the right to privacy do not have to be combatants. The people have tasked members of the news media with the duty and the responsibility to provide information. As publishers, we must find the boundary, push it, but refuse to cross it — never selling out our readers and never publishing what we cannot verify.
If the allegations are true, Murdoch did not just cross the line — he erased it. By doing so, he has placed all of us who enjoy freedom of the press at grave risk. Only when our readership trusts us to provide material acquired honestly can a free press continue to be a driving force in preserving our democracy. If Murdoch refuses to take his responsibility as a publisher seriously, he threatens not only Americans’ right to privacy, but also our basic freedoms.
After the Watergate scandal, a new generation of reporters striving for raw, honest journalism was born. Now, Murdoch’s actions have sent us in the opposite direction. Will his alleged machinations further degrade what little faith people have in what they read in their newspapers? The print industry is already suffering economically, and any more deterioration brings newspapers and magazines closer to extinction.
Members of the news media walk a fine line between fully leveraging freedom of the press and respecting their responsibilities to the public. It is a difficult balancing act. Murdoch seems to have fallen off the tightrope. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take all of us down with him.
Larry Flynt is the chief executive and owner of Larry Flynt Publications and Flynt Management Group, and the publisher of Hustler magazine.
Hustler magazine founder