You won’t need me to tell you about the allegations that have led to the closure of the News of the World publication this week. It is also impossible to say what the effects will be, especially as I have no idea of what really went on to create such a furore or what Rupert Murdoch’s plans are.
Instead, I felt I should reflect on where I feel the scandal and fallout leaves the journalistic industry. Will this be quickly forgotten (as News of the World readers move on to another tabloid), or have the high-profile victims in this case caused irreparable damage to media credibility?
First of all, it is clearly not journalists alone who must take a long hard look at themselves. The journalists may have been in the wrong by offering bribes for information, but the police officers (and, also, the phone network employees) who accepted them are also accountable. I hope that police enquiries do more for justice than covering backsides, though I am sceptical about this. The politicians who have condemned the hacking also have to take responsibility for the store that they have set by Murdoch’s empire, and will probably continue to do so.
In considering journalistic investigation, I think we should look at the difference between ‘of interest to the public’ and ‘in the public interest’. Rio Ferdinand’s alleged affair may well be interesting to the public – as a group we seem to like celebrity gossip and scandal. Do we need to know it? Is it worth the Sunday Mirror apparently paying out £16,000? The Mirror justified running the story as ‘in the public interest’ and for freedom of expression.
Freedoms of expression and the press are basic rights. But they can also be abused. Surely no one in their right mind would justify hacking – an illegal offence, while on the legal topic – dead military personnel’s families’ phones as a right to freedom of expression. But it has happened. The pressure to get a good story, amid a declining print industry, is at the root of the issue.
Newspapers are desperate to keep their daily readership in the millions. ‘Exclusive stories’ are key to why your reader will pick up your paper and not your rivals’ publications. So getting the big story that people will want to read, at whatever financial and/or ethical cost, appears pivotal.
In this case, the cost was not worth it. Journalists have lost their jobs for offences carried out by predecessors. Will journalists as a whole come under attack? Has all trust gone? Hugh Grant has seemingly become a hero for turning the tables on the tabloids, but is this more than a one-off case?
Frankly, no. There will be legal regulations for journalists to come from this, adding to the ‘ethical code of conduct’ they already have (or should have). Journalists will have to be more careful, and perhaps find new methods, but the demand for news in print or, increasingly, online and on other platforms will not cease. Many of the same people outraged by Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked this week will delight in The Sun poring over the details of Lady Gaga being pregnant with twins next week (note: this will probably not actually happen). Their methods for each story could be the same, but the reactions to the hypothetical revelations very different.
Whatever form of press, journalists will have that choice between good story and ethical conduct. Hopefully, in many cases, that choice need not be made. Journalists can report on the world’s goings-on without engaging in murky dealings. Nevertheless, while we shall see where the media goes from here, as long as people want information about ‘big stories’, there will be competition. Competition is not always fair. I hope that journalists, if not already signed up to a sensible way of thinking, will seriously consider how they do their jobs. There will always be some twisted individuals, but I hope that the industry as a whole will see that humanity and the rule of law comes before getting one over your petty, rival, hack journalist.