July 18, 2011 § Leave a comment
Journalists are never highly regarded at the best of times. They’re not in the same league as nurses, fire fighters and tree surgeons and sometimes not even held in the same esteem as lawyers, used car sales people and real estate agents, depending on which rankings you see.
The truth is the profession has good journalists and bad apples like any other and a decisive factor is ethics – an issue that appears never to have entered the minds of the News of the World editors who gave their journalists free rein to go on phone hacking missions.
This complete disregard for the law and people’s right privacy at the flagship Rupert Murdoch-controlled tabloid newspaper can only be described as an utter failure of journalistic ethics and a betrayal of the privilege of media freedom.
The seriousness and scale of what’s alleged means the abuses committed by NOTW journalists were systemic and must have been sanctioned by very senior news executives – one reason why the current fallout is having such deep and wide ranging repercussions.
What set in at the NOTW news room was a culture of law breaking – the hacking into the information of people’s private lives to uncover scandal. For the past five years, allegations of phone hacking by the newspaper’s journalists have been simmering. There was a police investigation that led to two convictions and revelations that News International, NOTW’s parent company, paid two important phone hacking victims for their silence. But the nature of NOTW’s usual targets – celebrities, politicians and members of the Royal Family – had failed to elicit much sympathy from the public. This all changed this month.
The hunger for exclusive content haunts weekly tabloids like the News of the World to a greater extent than their daily counterparts like The Sun because they only get one shot a week to break a story and set the news agenda for all its competitors. Forget the website, the hard copy Sunday print version is what really matters.
In its reckless pursuit of exclusive stories, News International, by dint of being NOTW’s owners, is culpable and stands accused of breaking British law – to be precise, the interception of communications, contrary to Section1(1) Criminal Law Act 1977 and bribing police, contrary to Section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906.
The game changer was a bolt from the blue. The Guardian revealed News of the World journalists had hacked the voice mail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002 while the search was on to find her. She was later found to have been murdered. It was also revealed a NOTW journalist or journalists deleted voice messages to make room for new messages from the girl’s worried friends and family members.
The reaction to the story has been one of universal disgust. NOTW had sunk journalism to a new and ultra-despicable low and heads are now rolling at News International. What’s also been laid bare is the company’s carefully managed and strategic relationships with key British politicians and even senior members of the police which has helped to protect the company like Teflon protects a non stick pan.
The founder of the News Corp empire that owns News International, Rupert Murdoch, has now personally apologised to the Dowler family and to the British public. In other developments, the NOTW has been closed down, journalists and former news executives are being arrested, Britain’s top policeman has resigned, an eight billion euro deal to buy satellite network BSkyB has been abandoned and Murdoch and his son James have been summonsed to appear before a parliamentary select committee. Meanwhile the threat of more criminal charges hangs on both sides of the Atlantic.
There are now other troubling allegations – that NOTW journalists hacked the phone accounts of the victims of the 2005 London tube and bus bombings. The US government will be carrying out its own investigations, including a probe on whether victims of 9/11 were also targeted by Murdoch journalists.
The blowback goes all the way to New York-based mother ship, News Corp, and what started with NOTW has become a defining crisis in Rupert Murdoch’s 50-year career as arguably the single most powerful man in news who has ever lived.
How then did News International get it so wrong? Here are four decisive factors.
Firstly, it seems certain that fierce competition for sales and profits in what is ostensibly a sunset industry was a fatally corrosive factor. The drive to scoop the opposition is the lifeblood of journalism and especially so for a Sunday tabloid. Tabloid newspapers are not called scandal sheets for nothing.
Secondly, NOTW was used as a career stepping stone by two ambitious young editors. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson cultivated a very aggressive, risk taking news room that regularly got the stories the competition wished it had. Both were later rewarded with spectacular career advancement but given what we know now, there can be no greater failure of leadership than what went on under their stewardship. Brooks has since resigned as chief executive of News International and both she and Coulson have been arrested.
Next, a strategy of short termism was everything. What happened at NOTW happened against a backdrop of gloom because newspapers are dying. The hugely profitable and intensely competitive world of Britain’s tabloid market is only sustainable for another decade or so. The digital time bomb is destroying the hard copy tabloid and desperation has infected the industry. It’s simply a matter of trying to buy as much time as possible in the hope that a digital way of profitably delivering mass media tabloid content is created and soon!
One last critical factor in the News International debacle is the impact on privacy that has been caused by the internet, mobile and surveillance technology, as well as social media. New complex multi-dimensional issues have sprung up that are changing our concepts of privacy and the enforcement and passing of new privacy legislation has failed to keep pace. Definitions of privacy and what is an invasion or breach of privacy are challenged on a daily basis by the news media. Newspapers like NOTW have knowingly exploited the confusion to push at the boundaries of privacy and in this case to fatefully cross them.
There you have it. The declining years of newsprint, ruthless editors, a reckless and exploitative news room culture, confusion over privacy issues, the onslaught of the internet, new enabling technologies and a corporate culture of hubris and arrogance have conspired to create one of the biggest media stories ever.
Now there will be a reckoning. The news media in Britain faces the prospect of greater regulation and there will be a rebalancing of privacy and media freedom. Media freedom is vital to transparency and democracy and to show truth to the powerful. But that freedom takes a mortal blow when society’s self-appointed watchdogs indulge in behaviour as corrupt as some of those they watch.