It's been rather surprising to see a story about skullduggery in the British press make such a news splash over here in the U.S., but I suppose media matters are now international, especially when it comes to Rupert Murdoch, whose influence on the English-speaking world continues to spread like a particularly aggressive cancer, and who now owns not only Fox News and the New York Post, but also Dow Jones, including The Wall Street Journal over here. The voice-mail hacking scandal is now off the front page on this side of the Atlantic, but I wanted to weigh in now because this morning's Guardian gave me the happy news that Rebekah Brooks, formerly Wade, has resigned as chief executive of News International, owner of the now-closed News of the World.
Until now, Ms. Brooks' fortunes seemed to tell us a different story than the ones we've been hearing lately about public accountability and what happens when you get caught with your pants down, literally or figuratively. No amount of straight-talking and mea culpa speeches were able to save the career of Anthony Weiner, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's marriage. It seemed that, once you were exposed as a complete blaggard, you were toast, in this bright new century of hyper-connected, information-saturated, e-democracy.
But Ms. Brooks, when she was still Ms. Wade, as editor of News of the World in 2000, was responsible for one of the most lamentable recent scandals in the British press before this one. The newspaper decided to "name and shame" pedophiles around the country. You can argue back and forth about the public's right to know the criminal record of their neighbors. But the rabid tone of the campaign led to a number of cases of vigilante action, many against innocent targets; in one famous instance, a pediatrician was attacked by people who couldn't tell the difference between pediatrics and pedophilia. Iain Armstrong, an innocent man in Manchester, was beaten by a mob because he wore a neck-brace similar to that in a photograph of a pedophile, and there were other attacks and threats of violence (some against the police) elsewhere. Convicted child-abuser James White committed suicide after being named.
Brooks then moved on to become editor of the Sun, where another "name and shame" news story ran with a photo of the wrong guy. That's a pretty big oops.
Somehow, Brooks survived both of these scandals, continuing to rise in the ranks, and in the esteem, it seems of Mr. Murdoch, who until yesterday was firmly and vocally supportive of Brooks and swore she had done no wrong.
As a former journalist, I can tell you that the editor of a newspaper knows exactly when his or her staff are bending the rules to get a good story. Usually, it's the editor who suggests bending the rules in the first place, and an editor is flat-out, no-arguments responsible for a culture of deception and bribery that results in sensational news breaks. Rebekah Brooks profited from illegal activity. She should be in jail.
It's a profound relief to realize that even the backing of a man ranked 7th most powerful in the world by Forbes magazine this year could not save this loathsome, morally bankrupt woman in the end. It's also a great reminder of the power of public opinion. I can't help wondering if she'll wake one morning to a marauding crowd of vigilantes, whipped into a frenzy by the hateful imprecations of another newspaper editor. It would certainly seem like poetic justice.