Last weekend the long running British Newspaper, the News of the World (NoW), printed its last paper. I’m tempted to follow that with ‘and nothing of value was lost’ but that would be a little unfair. NoW did play its part in revealing various scandals and pieces of corruption, most notably of late, the spot fixing scandal that hit cricket nearly 12 months ago. However, NoW have always represented, in my mind, the worst kind of journalism; the kind of sensationalist, reactionary, unprincipled do-anything-for-a-story journalism that gives the trade such a bad name. Nothing displays this better than the reality which has become apparent over the last few weeks.
For those that don’t know, it has been revealed that NoW have been hacking into the phones of various celebrities, politicians and sports stars, on the hunt for exclusive stories, for a number of years. Obviously this is completely immoral, as it violates the privacy of the individuals being hacked. Most controversially, NoW allegedly hacked into the phones of murdered teenager Milly Dowler and the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, as well as relatives of dead soldiers and 7/7 victims, which shows gross insensitivity, as well as a disregard for people’s privacy.
The upshot of all of this has been the closing of NoW and the resignation of several key figures in the scandal from New International (the owners of NoW), sever pressure on News Corporation (of which News International is a subsidiary) owner, Rupert Murdoch, to clean up his act. He has since released an apology, which is something, I suppose. The Prime Minister has announced a police investigation into both the phone hacking and into newspaper ethics in general.
This scandal is the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg that has also been something of an elephant in the room for a while (the tip of the elephant? Ok, enough with the clichés). Almost all newspapers, certainly all tabloid newspapers are guilty of this sort of misconduct. Celebrities are constantly and consistently harried, spied on, stalked and photographed by unscrupulous journalists on the lookout for a story. There’s little concern for the sheer unpleasantness of all of that unwanted attention for the celebrity in question, or the privacy of said celebrity. Although I’m not much of a fan of many celebrities who are famous for very little apparent reason, I do at least respect them as human being, rather than story generating devices for desperate journalists.
While the legality of this is questionable, it is extremely disturbing. The principles upon which the free press were founded centre of providing the public with a source of news that does not come from the government and so is able to offer a frank and (hopefully) truthful account of what is going on in the world, without any fear of it simply being government propaganda. Of course that does not prevent it from being someone else’s propaganda, but then what isn’t? This is, of course, a good thing. One of the cornerstones of a democratic and just state is the free press, because it provides voices for people outside the government. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, the free press has had an incredible influence on politics, and domestic and international affairs. It keeps the public informed and is a constant regulatory force on the government. However, the press is also incredibly powerful in its own right. After all, it is not the public who write the newspapers, it is the journalists, and what they say is largely dictated by the editor-in-chief. Newspapers don’t just inform opinion, they shape it as well. The editor of a major newspaper has a great deal of power.
So when we have newspapers who indulge in illegal and immoral invasions of privacy, newspapers that’s principles seem to lie on ever-shifting foundation, newspapers that always try to find the most outraged or outrageous positions on everything, no matter how much that might contradict last weeks sensationalism, we have reactionary journalism that helps to shape a reactionary public. NoW was such a paper and one can only hope that the unearthing of this scandal will help to show people that this sort of journalism is immoral and should have no place in a our media.
Of course, the problem is that people still buy it. NoW sold millions of copies a week, as do all the other tabloids. Tabloid newspapers far outsell traditional broadsheets. We can criticise unscrupulous journalists and unprincipled editors all we want (and I will continue to, because they hold some of the blame), but, as with anything in the free market, the consumers rule. If celebrity scandals and reactionary sensationalism sells, it will continue to be written.
There is, however, something that can be done by law makers. Yes, you are reading this, I am arguing in favour of regulation. Invasion of privacy is a violation of rights. Spying on people, hacking phones, photographing people in their private property and following people should be illegal and journalists who hound celebrities should be punished under the law. This wont stop journalists trying for exclusive news stories, but the courts need to show that they have back bone and are willing to stand up for people’s privacy and stop journalist from acting as they do. If this means fewer exclusive scoops on the private lives of our favourite celebrities, then that’s probably a plus. You might argue that this is a violation of the free press, but that is freedom to write what you want, not to do what you want when those actions are at odds with the rule of law. Newspapers might find themselves making less money, but that might encourage them to find better way of selling papers, like reporting on real news,
Newspapers themselves can and should act as their own regulator. Journalists have a bad reputation that can’t be good for the industry at all. By regulating themselves, papers might actually be able to get themselves a better reputation and hence lure some of the talent that is leaking away to online journalism back to the printed word. Then again I can’t see newspapers having the forethought to do that, especially if it means losing some revenue in the short term. It’s probably too much to ask for journalist and editor to allow principles to get in the way of selling copies, certainly for enough of them to do that to actually make any difference.
Even more unlikely is the possibility that the public might realise that, not only is news about celebrities thoroughly uninteresting, but the way in which that news is acquired is immoral, and refusing to buy tabloid newspapers any more, deciding instead to read better sources of news and thus becoming better informed. Pigs might fly. We can but hope that this scandal might have revealed just what lengths some journalists will go to in order to get news and put some people off, but I doubt it will make much of a dent in sales figures.
This scandal most certainly will not bring about a brave new world of journalistic and editorial standards. Very little will really change because journalists, editor, politicians and regulators are all deeply entrenched in an unhealthy, dependant relationship that profits all of them so long as the public doesn’t understand just how deep it all goes. When one slips up, they all look bad, there are red faces, apologies, a few meaningless changes of boarder and in a few months everything is back to normal. Some small changes for the better might come from this, but don’t expect much of a revolution from the old media.