Schadenfreude: that wonderful, uniquely German word that means to take pleasure from another’s misfortune. It is a feeling that we should not entertain very often, but I have certainly been feeling it lately as details continue to roll in over the ongoing phone hacking scandal that has caused the closure of News of the World, Britain’s most successful newspaper.
The scandal, in case you have not been following it, boils down to the king of British tabloids hacking into thousands of private voice mail accounts, including those of politicians, celebrities, various murder victims and possibly even 9/11 victims, all in a bid to get juicy scoops to sensationalize. The scandal first broke when it appeared the News had hacked Prince William’s voice mail to report on a knee injury he had. Since then, the scandal has broken wide, resulting in Parliamentary hearings in the UK and FBI concerns that wiretapping laws were broken in the U.S.
The hacking scandal has sidelined the career of former News top editor Rebekah Brooks and resulted in jail time for numerous News staff, including Brooks herself and Andy Coulson, Brooks’ successor at the News and former media advisor for PM David Cameron. And most of all, it has seriously tarnished the reputation and the legacy of News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch (and his son, James), one of the modern age’s most powerful media moguls. The scandal has also tanked Murdoch’s bid to take over BSkyB, one of the UK’s top satellite television operations. And it has cast doubt over how all of Murdoch’s other media interests are run. That Murdoch himself insists that he had no knowledge of such a widespread hacking practice is laughable, were it also not so cowardly. Citizen Kane has become Citizen Cain, and rightly so.
I have long disliked Murdoch’s willingness to disguise editorials as news (especially in the U.S., with Fox News). So for me, this scandal is simply Murdoch’s misdeeds catching up to him, and it has been satisfying to watch. Where it turned to schadenfreude, though, is when a comedian going by the name Johnnie Marbles broke into the Parliamentary hearing where Murdoch was being questioned on the scandal, and hit Murdoch with a shaving-cream pie.
The pie caused no physical harm, and it looked like Marbles got more on himself than on his target. But once the hearing resumed, we saw Citizen Cain sitting there, without his jacket, looking humiliated before a global media network that he had sought for so long to dominate. He who made a science out of using the media as a bully pulpit (especially in the U.S. with Fox News) now had to endure the hoots and jeers from a billion people raised to see the media and the Internet as little more than a forum in which to sling mud. This is the legacy Citizen Cain can expect to be his, in the long run. It is the only legacy he deserves.
Meanwhile, for the rest of us, whether we are in the media, insurance or any other industry, let this incident serve as a stark reminder that while we are immune to no law, we are most beholden to ourselves. We can either let that spur us to reach ever-greater heights of excellence and accountability, or we can use that to excuse a descent into depravity. Either way, we will answer for our deeds. The question is, how much schadenfreude will be generated along the way?