News International has moved decisively and ruthlessly to cut out the cancer in its midst by closing down the title in the frame for this disgusting behaviour. It seems massively unfair to the many staff and journalists, not to mention millions of readers, who have not done anything wrong. But such was the damage to the paper's brand and the potential for that damage to seep into other News International titles that Murdoch clearly felt the action was necessary. However, more and more revelations are emerging that could yet threaten his other titles. Ironically, it is this threat that would do more damage to media plurality that any BSkyB takeover would.
BSkyB/News International deal was not affected by the revelations one day, and then calling for the deal to be reassessed the next, when he had to appear in Prime Minister's question time... on the telly.
The danger is that the politically motivated johnny-come-lately opposition politicians and original protagonists in this saga will, in their attempts to maintain focus on Andy Coulson because of his 4 year stint in the employ of David Cameron and News International generally, distract attention from the broader issue of how the press conducts itself. So desperate are they to implicate Cameron in the scandal and destroy Murdoch's company, they may deny this country a real opportunity to reset the values and moral compass of our tabloid media, or at least deny them easy access to ill-gotten information without a true public interest justification. By public interest I don't mean "interesting to the public", of course!
It is this last point that I think everyone who used to buy the News of the World or any other tabloid such as the Mirror, Sun, Mail... should ponder. What motivated these journalists to go to such lengths to get info on people? It was the fight of readership. You get what you deserve in the real world, not necessarily what is good for you. We have the press and politicians we deserve. The truth is salacious stories about celebrities (or anyone who finds themselves in the public eye) sold newspapers. The News of the World was the top selling Sunday newspaper for a reason. It did sex and scandal better than its rivals. And we lapped it up. Despite what the anti-Cameron/News International brigade want you to believe, the NotW's competitors are just as deeply immersed in the mire of dark arts in the search for a juicy story. As the What Price Privacy Now report found, there exists a market in confidential personal data, often provided by private investigators (like Glen Mulcaire), grubbing around in bins, blagging confidential information, accessing personal voice mail messages and exploiting contacts with the police etc, to get information on anyone they think the tabloids would be interested in. And if you thought it was only the News International titles making use of these dodgy services, think on...
But once the enquiries report and we understand the full picture, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The MPs expenses scandal required the receipt of stolen goods to be overlooked as the story was clearly in the public's interest. Phone hacking is similarly perfectly justifiable if it is in the search for information that could lead to similarly important story being broken. The public needs to understand how journalists get their information and be reassured that, should they use illegal methods without a real public interest case, they will be prosecuted and their paper will bear a heavy cost for overstepping the mark. For that to happen we need to:
- Have a clearer definition of "public interest" - this isn't as easy as it sounds. A real public debate is required to sort the answer out. But the real penalties that will make Newspaper's think twice before using intrusive measures to dig up information.
- That there isn't a corrupting relationship between the police and media that could be exempting journalists from their legal responsibilities (hence Cameron's second enquiry into the police's role in this scandal)
- Politicians that are not frightened to hold media organisation to account. Something all party leaders have only now, belatedly and only after all media proprietors are running scared, started to do.
- A newspaper buying public that doesn't reward papers that publish the most base, sensationalist and scandalous stories. This final requirement will be the hardest to achieve. Impossible in fact, unless the nation changes its tastes all of a sudden!