Everybody’s talking about… tabloid phone hacking

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So, it turns out that some people who work for the News of the World have questionable moral standards. This should not be surprising to anyone by this point in time. Allegations of phone hacking first surfaced in 2005. The paper’s royal editor was jailed for this crime in 2007. In February 2010 the Culture Commitee found that it was “inconceivable” that senior executives at the paper weren’t aware that phone hacking was going on.

Questions still remain about how widespread these practices were, or are, across other newspapers and media. The somewhat muted early response to the story from other print tabloids might suggest that there are skeletons in closets well beyond the News of the World. The Information Commissioner’s report into journalists paying for “private” information cited the Mirror and the Mail as the leading offenders in that area. Confirmation from the Press Association in June 2011 that one of its journalists had been arrested in relation to phone hacking also gives a possible indication of a wider problem in the industry.

But the specific actions of specific papers, morally bankrupt though the increasingly appear to be, actually concern me less than the wider culpability of those who ought to be in a position do something about the mess.

Let’s start with the Press Complaints Commission. In 2009 the PCC looked at new allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, arising from a Guardian article about the problem. They found that there was no evidence of hacking. It was only today, nearly two years later, that the Commission finally acknowledged that they could no longer stand by that conclusion. Today’s statement also noted that the recent admission that Milly Dowler’s voicemail was hacked “undermined the assurances” given to the Commission by News International. Well, yes. But it also raises questions about the PCC’s investigation. Did it simply take the form of asking News International whether they did phone hacking, and nodding politely when the answer was slightly shifty “No sir. Course not sir. Didn’t do it. You can’t prove anything”?

That’s ok though. The PCC is a self-regulatory body for the print media, and there are always limitations to self-regulation in any industry. In this one the limitations of self-regulation have to be balanced against the value of a free press. And in the case of phone-hacking a criminal act has occured, so the primary investigatory responsibility, and power, lie not the with PCC, but with the police.  And here’s where it gets really shady. Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and now Chief Executive of News International, admitted in evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the Press & Privacy in 2003, that the News of the World had, on occasion, paid police officers for information. She later qualified this statement in a letter to the Inquiry.

The Met’s initial 2005 investigation into phone hacking led to the convictions of a private investigator and one News of the World journalist. No further action was deemed necessary by the police or the CPS. No evidence of hacking beyond the specific offences in the trial was presented by the CPS to any court. The matter was simply not treated as a priority. At best, that smacks of an attitude that perceives criminal acts by well-paid powerful organisations and individuals as of limited importance. Alternatively, it suggests a police force which is unwilling or incapable of thoroughly investigating powerful, and potentially unco-operative, companies. Even now new revelations about the depth of the wrongdoing at News International seem to come out in terms of “News International have revealed that…”, rather than “the police have discovered that…” It rather makes you wonder who is really in charge of the current investigation.

The police are still not the final line of defence. Ultimately, political pressure could have lit a fire under the police investigation or sanctioned a specific inquiry into phone hacking in the media. Until yesterday that didn’t look likely. Why not? It’s very easy to lay the blame squarely at David Cameron’s door. He employed one former News of the World editor, and still seems unable to accept that that may have been unwise. He is also close friends with Rebekah Brooks. The image of cronyism at the highest level in British politics remains strong, and Cameron should be held accountable for his judgements in who he hires and who he chooses to call a friend.

The problem goes deeper than that though. At present the Murdoch owned News International already control approximately 1/3 of the UK newspaper market. Murdoch also owns 39% of BSkyB and is in the process of attempting to purchase the remaining 61% to make the company wholly owned by News Corp. The political influence of the Murdoch papers is hard to quantify. Successive editors have claimed that they don’t decide election results, they simply follow the public mood very closely. My suspicion is that those editors don’t really believe that version, and, more importantly, politicians don’t believe it either. Since the 1980s Rupert Murdoch and his organisation have become untouchable by leading politicians. Courting those papers has come to be seen as a prerequisite for political success. Unfortunately, it now appears that those papers have been harbouring a contagion at their heart, and politicians are discovering that if you’re prepared to sleep with the enemy, you’re likely to get contaminated by their germs.

How the current controversy over phone hacking, and now paying police for information, pans out may well tell us something about the current state of News Corp’s influence in the UK. If they come out of the other side retaining their market share, luring back those advertisers who are currently distancing themselves from News of the World, and, most importantly, owning BSkyB outright, we will know, that for now at least, traditional bonds of power, influence and cronyism are still strong forces. If they don’t, if the takeover of BSkyB is ultimately blocked, if the News of the World suffers a long-term dip in readership and advertising revenue, then we will know that the sands have shifted, slightly but significantly, around us.

Perhaps, at that point, we might conclude that new media, online news, and social networks really are starting to undermine the accepted order. Misleading stories and misdirections in the mainstream press are becoming easier to challenge, when any Tom, Dick or Alison can write their own version and send it out into the world. With 140 characters as our weapon of choice, we might just all be headline writers now.

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