The reaction also reflects the anger of politicians who long have been intimidated by the tactics of aggressive tabloids and who have felt the need to curry favor with powerful media barons, especially Murdoch, to win the support of those newspapers and to shield themselves from their intrusive reporting.
In Britain, money plays a smaller role in politics than it does in the United States, and politicians have few ways to communicate effectively with the public outside the media filter. Television advertising plays no significant role in campaigns; for the most part, it is not allowed.
An American politician who feels aggrieved by the media can buy television spots to answer them. His British counterparts have no such option. Elected officials must depend on the good graces of newspapers for favorable coverage.
Murdoch is not the only owner of a British newspaper whose employees have used questionable methods in pursuit of sensational stories and political influence, although what the News of the World did has shocked even the cynics.
But as the biggest and most powerful of those media owners, with a reputation built over three decades, he is paying for his and the industry’s sins. This scandal has provided the vehicle for potentially broader retribution.
Where the criminal and political inquiries underway in Britain will lead can’t be fully known, but they almost certainly will diminish his power, which in turn could result in a change in the posture of politicians toward the media in general.
None of this is to say that what happened in Britain could never happen in the United States, and there are questions as to whether the phone hacking there spilled over here. But there is little equivalent in the United States to the power and influence of the British press, the relationship between the Murdoch corporate leadership and British politicians or the role of money and advertising in politics.
Contributing to the culture is the fact that London is a village, in a way that no U.S. city is. Here, Washington is the nation’s political center, New York the financial center, and Los Angeles the media and entertainment center. In Britain, all power is centralized, with Murdoch the biggest media player on the stage by far. Because everyone knows everyone in such a small community, when scandal hits, it doesn’t take long to draw the connections from power broker to politician.
To understand the uniquely British nature of this scandal, it is necessary to look at the intersection of media and politics there. Unlike in the United States, newspapers in Britain still wield enormous power. Television networks are constrained by law in what they can do and say. The BBC is required by charter to ensure balance. There is no cable television culture, as there is here, that sorts out viewers by ideology and feeds red meat daily to the participants in the political dialogue.