Monday, July 11, 2011

They're All At It!

When the serious allegations regarding the News of the World phone hacking scandal emerged last week it was clear that this "scandal" had finally produced some real substance. Previously, the faux outrage being exhibited by left leaning papers, politicians and celebs was transparently in their own self-interest. Bitter at News International for turning their back on Labour after so long, their hatred had undermined the case that was being made against the press, mainly because they sought to focus on the one organisation. But now we hear the extent of the use of phone hacking went beyond those in public life to include innocent private individuals, even victims of crime. The worst accusation involves PI Glen Mulcaire, apparently in the pay of The News of The World, listening into voice mail messages of Milly Dowler when she was still missing. This is an appalling revelation and all the outrage and indignation was well justified.

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.
What is sickening is seeing Ed Miliband attempts to be seen, all of a sudden, as a leader of the campaign against The News of the World and now News International. This is a man who employs a News International ex-journalist as a press secretary who was, just a day before the story broke, following his advice to lay off the topic. Miliband even undertook a complete about turn over night by saying the 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...
So, it's great that we have a public enquiry into the activities of the press. I hope it exposes their practices which, for decades, have been hardly questioned because of the assumption that anything was justifiable in the name of a free press; the myth that such practices were ultimately in the public interest. In reality they were mostly pandering to the salacious interests of the public and didn't care who they hurt or destroyed along the way. It wasn't just the News of the World, or the Sun or the Mail (the papers most of those on the left want attention focused on). It was all papers, including left leaning ones like the Mirror, the Observer and the People. Yes, the Observer. It's not even limited to tabloids! The whole industry needs to be looked at. Party politics has no place in these deliberations. It is shameful that there are those that wish to make it about Cameron or the "right wing press". I think Miliband and others will come out of this looking very shabby indeed.

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!

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