Yes We Can!
For quite a while over at my site, Deus Ex Malcontent, I’ve asked what’s really seemed like a rhetorical question: What can you do about a news organization that refuses to behave and conduct itself in an ethical manner? It’s true that normally when I ponder this little conundrum it’s in reference to some disgraceful thing or other that Fox News has done, but regardless of who I’m talking about the answer usually feels the same: nothing — you can’t do a goddamn thing. Are you going to start shutting down news operations? Taking them off the air? The only entities with the supposed authority to do that are governments, and no one wants to begin taking the draconian measure of actually censoring the news, no matter if the news in question is little more than horseshit propaganda and outright lies. The backlash from that kind of governmental intrusion would be epochal and it’s not something any political leader would feel like submitting him or herself to.
The problem, though, is that without the fear of a Sword of Damocles dangling over their heads any more substantial than maybe a Twitter-led campaign against them — which can, in fact, do some good — there’s not much in the way of a penalty to deter news outlets who don’t feel like playing by the rules. They know this the same way their corporate overlords know this. Obviously, not every news organization engages in unscrupulous behavior — and many are excellent at transparent self-policing — but there’s not really much to stop them should they choose to and, like unruly teens suddenly waking up to the fact that their parents have no real power over them, they don’t fear any genuinely severe consequences to their actions. Fox News knows damn well that it can lie its ass off, purposely edit misleading video, air conspiracy theory and wild speculation and give voice to the most dangerous and irresponsible characters on the political fringe and there isn’t a fucking thing anybody can do about it. Likewise, Sky News knows that it can hack into the e-mail accounts of average citizens in the course of an investigation and do so with impunity — as long as it’s portrayed as being in the service of the greater good.
Except that Sky News is wrong. What it did was not simply unethical but illegal. And it should be held accountable for it, regardless of its self-righteous declaration that it was merely satisfying the public’s right to know while simultaneously acting as a self-appointed arm of the police department.
No, if you lie and make stuff up and subvert the political discourse, no matter who you are, you very likely won’t face much in the way of repercussions — not enough to be a deterrent anyway. But if you break the law as a news organization, it turns out there is a way to stop you: arresting your ass. And it doesn’t matter one bit if you arrogantly believe you were doing the right thing.