Lawrence Martin

The tabloids' spell is broken

Special to The Globe and Mail

(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)

Fed up with the tabloidization of our culture? Amazed by the continuing triumph of the down-marketers? Depressed by the anti-intellectualism of our age?

Well, pop your champagne corks. A cultural renaissance has begun. What a year - to follow the Arab spring, a cultural spring.

We exaggerate, of course. But at least there's cause for hope. What could be better as a cultural elixir than the fall of the king of the bottom-feeders, Rupert Murdoch? With the volcanic story of Hackergate - much of it is still to come - the era of dumbing down is surely taking one of its biggest hits since inception.

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Mr. Murdoch's pandering to the lowest common denominator has spanned three continents for three decades. Pete Hamill, the former editor of the New York Post, said that, under Mr. Murdoch, the paper became like "an unwanted guest who threw up at your dinner party." The Australian-born media baron enforced such bias on his papers, one columnist said, that it was like they were running an Islamophobic command centre.

His approach found such success that it looked to be impregnable. He had so many weapons at his disposal for counterattack that he could push his brand with seeming impunity. Others followed his lead. Media proprietors can choose to inform and enlighten or to pander to prejudice. Before Hackergate, the latter was winning.

So was the distressing tide of media concentration of ownership, particularly in the United States and Britain. It's hard to have freedom of the press when that freedom is limited to a few proprietors and what they believe. Now, thankfully, with the microscope on the enormous power of Mr. Murdoch's empire, much more attention will be paid to ownership.

This empire became so powerful in Britain that political parties needed Mr. Murdoch to get elected. It wasn't much different in Australia, and we all know how Fox News coarsened and cheapened the dialogue in the U.S. - not to mention the role it has played, with its one-sided demagoguery, in American political culture. But now, as another potential benefit of Hackergate, the frequently cozy relationships between media owners and politicians or journalists themselves and politicians will be exposed.

Mr. Murdoch has done some good things for journalism, such as liberating the British media from restrictive union practices. Not all his titles are of the gossip mentality, and many in the conservative camp aren't happy to see his fall. But perhaps they should be. Despite his bottom-line successes, he has been an embarrassment to the conservative creed. One of countless examples was his support for Glenn Beck after the Fox News ranter called Barack Obama a racist. The more Mr. Murdoch loses influence, the more room for thinking conservatives to gain respect.

While the phone-hacking scandal serves many good purposes, one of the downsides is that governments will feel they have freer rein to regulate media. Canada's governing Conservatives might not mind that idea. Despite getting editorial endorsement from the vast majority of Canadian newspapers in this year's campaign, they were still so chafed that, after their victory, party president John Walsh sent a letter to supporters asking for financial backing to take on the media.

As for Mr. Murdoch's disgrace, Stephen Harper probably won't be enthused. The Prime Minister is a fan of Fox News and once lunched Mr. Murdoch and Fox boss Roger Ailes in New York.

Much fallout is yet to come from the Hackergate scandal. There will be official inquiries in Britain and there may be probes in the United States. The empire is not about to collapse - it's too big for that - but it will be in retreat, and a lot of good could come of it. Mr. Murdoch cast a lowly spell, but the spell has been broken.

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