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Who Guards the Guardians?

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Octogenarian Rupert Murdoch's fall from grace was as swift as it was humbling. Back in June, the media mogul's News International television and newspaper empire was riding high. His Sun and News of the World newspapers and Sky Television were generating fabulous profits, keeping alive less profitable papers such as The Times and Sunday Times. Murdoch enterprises held a commanding position in the United Kingdom media marketplace—which, in turn, guaranteed Murdoch unprecedented power and access to leaders across society.


But, at the beginning of July, Murdoch's UK organization began to unravel at astonishing speed when it was discovered that the illegal practice of "phone hacking" was endemic at the News of the World. Not only had the phones of media personalities, public figures and celebrities been hacked to gain "incriminating" evidence to inform their stories, but so also had those of murdered schoolgirls and relatives of servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In rapid order, simply unimaginable events began to engulf the Murdoch conglomerate. Advertisers deserted the News of the World; share prices of different parts of the global empire began to fall back sharply. And then came the unthinkable: after 168 years of existence, Murdoch closed the once mighty and proud, highly profitable, News of the World, deeming it no longer "fit for purpose."

Top Murdoch executives were forced to resign. Britain's top policeman and a senior assistant resigned amidst allegations that police had failed in their duty of care and that some policemen had accepted illegal payments from the News of the World. Even Prime Minister David Cameron was left stranded because of his close contacts with Murdoch operatives. It soon became apparent that literally thousands of people may have had their private information illegally accessed, leaving most of the nation appalled and disgusted by the sheer extent of illegal activities.

What are we to make of such colossal failures of trust within our society? The press is often described as the guardian of society—providing an essential check on all aspects of public life. In the public interest, journalists can reveal and unmask secrets that otherwise would remain hidden. Politicians, public figures and celebrities have learned to fear their enquiries and any resulting coverage. No wonder that, witnessing the demise of the Murdoch empire, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg commented that the very pillars of the British establishment—politicians, police and print media—seemed to be crumbling before his very eyes.

So, where is the dividing line between those matters that should be made public and those that should remain private? And what limits should there be on the methods used to access hidden information? Some members of the press behave as if any and all information should be made public, and almost any method used to obtain it considered legitimate. What must change in order for the pillars of society generally, and the print media specifically, to regain public trust? Who will guard the guardians from failure and excess? As the UK struggles with these issues, a judicial enquiry will assemble a range of answers over the coming months.

Perhaps one important clue to the underlying answer can be found in the very final issue of the News of the World, published on July 9. That final edition was wrapped in the front page of the very first edition of the newspaper, published on October 1, 1843. An editorial in that first edition explained why Britain needed a new paper and what would be its "influencing motives." The editorial closed with these words: "Our motto is truth. Our practice is the fearless advocacy of truth."

In the July 9 edition, a column opined that "the most important job of this paper has always been to go after those foolish enough to think they were above the law, above justice and exempt from the moral code the rest of us live by." How ironic that the News of the World will not be around to cover perhaps the most relevant story in its history—revealing those on its own staff who had shown such disregard of "the moral code the rest of us live by."

Source and Guide of Truth

What is needed to regain public trust and a return to decent standards is indeed truth—a true understanding of the moral code that we should live by. And we find this code in the Bible, God's word of Truth. It is called the Ten Commandments. Much of the Bible serves to enlarge upon and provide examples of this moral code in action and the consequences that occur when it is ignored.

Quite often, we hear people suggest that it is "right" to do this, or that it is "wrong" to do that. Yet such moral preferences are often highly personal, conveniently disregarding or contravening the plain guidelines of Scripture. What, then, might be some of the characteristics of a newspaper guided by true biblical morality and values?

First of all, it would strive to be responsible and positive in its coverage. The inevitable bad news would be balanced by the good. Is society truly edified by the negative, base and sensationalized coverage so endemic in the tabloid press? "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things" (Philippians 4:8).

Such a newspaper would at all times abide by the law of the land. It may campaign to change the law but there should never be any mandate to break the law. "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves" (Romans 13:1–2).

It would always strive to get the facts and tell the truth. Do we really want to become like the debauched society described in the Bible? "No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity" (Isaiah 59:4).

It would not be founded on prurient, lurid reporting of sexual misdemeanours, as so often found in the tabloid press. There are different and more responsible ways of reporting such stories. "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret" (Ephesians 5:11–12).

It would project modesty in photographs and graphics. There would be no place for nude "Page 3 Girls"-type coverage, even if such does drive up sales. Consider Paul's admonition "that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing" (1 Timothy 2:9).

A shocked UK remains transfixed by a rapidly developing scandal that is likely to roll on for many months to come, with outcomes that for now can only be conjectured. Yet it need not have been this way. The Bible provides us with an explicit external written code that lays down the enduring set of moral values that God wants all to internalize and uphold for the good of all. If the News of the World—in its quest for truth—had consistently been guided by this code from its inception in 1843, it might have remained "fit for purpose" today.

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