The Wednesday Essay: Phone hacking, scandals and ethics in journalism

(c) Bobbie

Tom Bailey

The revelation in The Guardian about the News of the World’s supposed phone hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile is, if true, disgraceful. While it remains an allegation, there are suggestions to support its veracity; Robert Peston of the BBC, whose insider knowledge of the company has been testified to, blogged that the paper’s executives “are not contesting the basic facts” of the story. Furthermore, there has been no denial from News of the World.

The response from Britain’s politicians and journalists has predictably been one of outrage. Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, summarized that the paper is accused of tampering ‘with evidence in a police investigation into a missing young girl for the sake of some column inches’. A newspaper insider Fleet Street Fox wrote that “’Unethical’ is not an adequate description for it; ethics weren’t even within shouting distance of whoever decided to do that.”

It does, as Jonathan Baldie aptly summarised on this website, reflect “the depravity of tabloid journalism at its worst” In 2007, Tony Blair said that the press could act like a ‘feral beast’ when in search of a story. Widely dismissed at the time by the press as sour grapes, the ‘feral beast’ label seems the perfect description for this alleged act. The question is, should News of the World confirm that this hack did occur, what action will be taken to prevent future repetition?

Firstly, can we expect News International to do anything of lasting consequence? Perhaps, although the public response from the upper echelons of News International to the phone hacking scandals so far has been disappointing. Rebekah Brooks, the then editor, said that “it is inconceivable that I knew – or worse – sanctioned these appalling allegations.” However, Robert Peston has rightly identified that Andy Coulson, then deputy editor, and “Rebekah Brooks are damned if they did know and damned if they didn’t – in that as the most senior editors of the News of the World, they should have made enquiries about how sensitive information was obtained.”

If the allegations are true, then there will have been a major failing by News International, either of ignorance of or complicity in the activities of those working on behalf of the company. The News International response has been subject to cutting sarcasm from several websites. Rebekah Brooks has promised the ‘strongest possible action’ if it is demonstrated that the allegations are true. However, so far the paper appears to have barely dealt with the subject at all on its own pages.

A search on the News of the World website flags up seven hits, only three of which are actually relevant to the scandal. The most recent is from 2009 and all seem to constitute favourable reports on the paper with current revelations completely omitted from mention. No doubt a rogue element or bad apple will be fingered as the culprit and blamed. Today’s report in The Sun is evidently approaching from that angle. With sufficient public pressure, perhaps a leading executive or two will go. However, the broader system will remain the same and a repeat occurrence would be plausible.

Such an action will have occurred not because anyone thought it morally commendable but because the incentives existed for this sort of journalism. The actions of someone who undertook the phone hack reflect the demands within a struggling industry for high impact news. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, wrote in his book that “the competition between newspapers with fewer readers and the demand for twenty-four hour news has led to an inexorable decline in quality as the media grasps for shock as a way of attracting attention.”

While written with respect to political journalism, it is equally true with press coverage of all elements of the news. Gleaning information from voice messages could have provided that edge. The added market pressures that the industry now encounters from online competition will only increase the pressure to sink to such depths. Sacking whoever News International deems to be culpable will not alter the basic incentives within the industry; there is money to be made for exclusive scoops, whatever the methods used.

The question then becomes what will be done to prevent similar activities by the press as a whole. Again, there is little reason for hope. A cross party select committee described the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) as ‘toothless’ as recently as February of this year. Furthermore, newspapers can simply opt out of this self-regulation. For instance, the entire Northern & Shell group, owners of titles including The Daily Express and The Daily Star, withdrew from the body in January of this year. Lord Black of Brentwood, Chairman of Press Standards Board of Finance, described this withdrawal as a “deeply regrettable decision.”

However, the body is powerless to prevent this. Today, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Baroness Buscombe, reconfirmed the group’s impotence. She stated on the Daily Politics that “there’s only so much we can do when people are lying to us”. Given the clear limits to self-regulation, what then will our politicians do on the issue? Apart from action by concerned backbenchers, the public should have low expectations. Even within a statement on The Guardian’s revelation, Ed Miliband reconfirmed that he remains ‘a supporter of self-regulation of the press’.

David Cameron has previously emphasized his own support for the process of self-regulation, admittedly in the context of successful incident of self-regulation. However, the phone hacking scandal demonstrates that self-regulation has failed to avoid serious misconduct within the press. Yet political leaders remain in support of self-regulation. The reason for this is perhaps a more permanent issue, that of the undoubted importance and unaccountable power of the press in Britain’s political process.

Political considerations regularly prevent serious action by politicians against the worst excesses of the press. Tony Blair’s speech was an attempt to discuss the issues of media standards at the end of his time as Prime Minister. However, Blair did not take action; Jonathan Powell wrote in his book that Gordon Brown’s desire for future support from newspapers prevented any real consideration of newspaper reforms during Blair’s third term.

Any attempt by a politician would also present an opportunity for political opponents. For instance, Tony Blair’s 2007 speech received criticism from Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster who said that “It’s easy to blame the press for a loss of trust in politicians; a fairer analysis would point to his own culture of spin. Hints at the need for increased regulation of the press are deeply worrying. Politicians may not like what is sometimes written about them, but a free press is the best safeguard for accountability and against corruption and hypocrisy.”

A free press is of course vital but a more nuanced counter argument about the responsibilities of the press can and must be made. One longstanding critic of News International is the politician Tom Watson MP. He criticized both Cameron and Miliband for their response to the phone hacking scandal thus far, saying that ‘It’s utterly disgraceful that they’ve let this scandal run on for as long as it has. No more cowardice – we want action.’ The trouble is that both political leaders desire newspaper support and will not be willing to risk this on the subject of newspaper regulation. Tony Blair has been and will continue to be criticized for excessive spin in government.

However, he won a record three general elections as Labour leader in the face of a largely hostile right-wing press and his spin did, for a time at least, avoid the brutal treatment meted out to other Labour leaders such as Neil Kinnock was given by The Sun. Spin, media management or whatever else you call it is vital to political success. Clegg and Miliband are both incredibly unpopular and Cameron failed to win a majority in 2010. The chances of any of them tackling the issue, given the political risks and implications, seem negligible at best. Overall, the newspaper company itself, the industry and politicians seem unlikely to challenge the system that has given rise to this unacceptable phone hacking.

These revelations are obliviously appalling news for Millie Dowler’s family. From all sides there are statements on the shock of the revelations. If the allegations are demonstrated to be true, it is important to look beyond the rhetoric and noise emanating from all quarters to see what action is actually taken to prevent future repetitions. The risk is that this issue could easily be dismissed as the actions of one bad apple rather than evidence of the unacceptable behavior and culture within sections of our media. This would be more convenient for both Britain’s political frontbenches and News International.

Despite my cynicism, people can take action against this form of journalism by writing to their politicians, through consumer action or supporting campaign groups critical of this behaviour such as Avaaz. Undoubtedly, phone hacking would not take place if it were not profitable. A response to the phone hacking scandal must be cautious to avoid infringing on press freedom but we cannot allow this line of defence to be misused to defend the indefensible.

This is the inaugural Wednesday Essay, a weekly analysis on a prominent topic in the week’s news. Keep visiting for regular coverage

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