The Fourth Estate isnt and shouldn’t be a law unto itself

“Thank You and Goodbye”. This headline is the last one that readers of the News of the World weekly tabloid will ever see after Robert Murdoch pulled the plug last Sunday. This after being in business since 1843.  The demise of any newspaper is unfortunate because that means that the journalists, editors, proof readers and hundreds of unknown people that depended on the publication have their bread swiped out of their hands. However, the News of the World surely deserved everything it got. People working for the newspaper went way beyond the realm of good taste and descended into the mire. The hacking of celebrity voice mails was bad enough.  I can understand the desire to give their readers a scoop on Sienna Miller, Michael Jackson or any other media personality; while its wrong, it can be justified by the ‘publics right to know’.

But when these people illegally accessed the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a teenager that was kidnapped and then murdered, they totally lost me. And after watching the aftermath of this revelation, I am not the only one that washed my hands of these hacks. Yesterday Les Hinton, the head of the Dow Jones and former chief Executive of News International (the parent company of the News of the World) during the hacking scandal resigned, following in the footsteps of Rebekah Brooks, News International chief executive.

While the shutting down of the newspaper and the cull at the very top of News Corp, the media behemoth that Rupert Murdoch owns, is all well and good, I think that the entire phone-hacking debacle should be debated. I don’t look at the scandal as a one-off thing but rather a challenge to the assertion that the Press is always a force for good, a force that is untouchable and unquestionable.

The classical aka Western liberal view of the press is that it is a bulwark of democracy. The ‘Fourth Estate’, as my fellow journos call themselves, think they are as indispensible as the judiciary, legislature and executive is to the running of an effective state and open society. Guess what? That’s the kind of attitude that leads to the phone-hacking scandal. Because, unlike the other arms of government which are ultimately at the mercy of the electorate, the Press is responsible to no one but themselves.  For example, when President Nixon was found to have asked his people to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex impeachment proceedings begun against him, forcing his resignation. The People’s representatives took him to task. However, if Robert Murdoch had stuck to his guns no one, not even the Queen herself, could force him to close the News of the World. And, let’s be honest, its readership wouldn’t have disappeared. That, in a nutshell, is the undemocratic nature of the Press. Despite all the power publishers’ yield, they aren’t accountable to anyone. Not even their own readers.

Rwanda has attempted to find a way to make its Press accountable to the people by enacting laws such as the Media Law and the laws against divisionism and genocide ideology. The right to free speech and freedom of the press isnt paramount here in my country. And that’s why people like Agnes Nkusi, publisher of the Umurabyo newspaper, are in jail. She refused to realize that while free speech is encouraged here, when this free speech is abused and threatens the lives of innocent people, the Press isnt untouchable.

And, by the way, if you think that ‘poor’ Rupert Murdoch didn’t get calls from politicians asking that he do something about his paper then you are naïve. He listened. The very same people that nag us about our ‘interventions’ do exactly the same. But I guess it’s too much to expect fair treatment

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