Sunday 12 July 2009

Journalism back in the gutter!

It was only a couple of weeks ago during the MP expenses revelations, that investigative journalism reminded the public of what an important role journalism can play in our society.

How quickly things have changed after it was discovered this week, that News of the World journalists used private investigators to illegally hack into the mobile phone messages of various public figures.

The daily coverage from the Telegraph was journalism at its very best exposing the greed, dishonesty and corruption of our elected politicians. This phone tapping revelation has undone all that good publicity and returned tabloid journalism back to the gutter!

To be honest it didn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the News of the World’s had paid out over a £1 million to settle legal cases which potentially threatened to reveal evidence that some of their journalists had used criminal methods to get stories.

Last year I read a book called ‘Flat Earth News’ written by a journalist named Nick Davies. In the book Davies sets out to expose the inner workings of today’s newspaper industry.

He talks about how a lack of resources means that more and more journalists do not have the time to properly research and find stories for themselves, relying more and more on re-writing press releases that they receive.

He highlights news stories which are nothing more than media events manufactured by a growing PR industry, and speaks of how much of the information we read is routinely distorted and presented in a misleading fashion.

It was a fascinating book to read, and in one chapter entitled ‘The Dark Arts’. He exposes some of the more unsavoury aspects on how newspapers operate to find stories. The chapter begins with a quote from former Labour Party Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell that reads:

‘If the public knew the truth about the way certain sections of the media operate they would be absolutely horrified’

How very telling! The chapter goes onto describe many of the unethical ways that newspapers go about finding information on members of the public. These include, bribing members of the police and civil servants; all done through using other people, mainly private investigators.

Records of itemised telephone bills, social security records, private bank accounts have all routinely been obtained through freelance private investigators working on behalf of newspapers.

The book mentions one interesting character called Benjamin Pell, who had his own freelance business of searching through the rubbish of much of London’s top Legal Firms in order to find various information, which could be sold to the press. What’s funny is that he actually made quite a good career for a while working amongst rubbish!

Having read all this it came as little surprise to me when this phone tapping story broke. Why wouldn't private investigators be used to tap into other people's phone messages. It just seemed like a logical progression from the activities I'd already heard about.

All this has been caused due to the increasing commercial demands and pressures to sell more newspapers. These demands seem to mean that ethics go out of the window when it comes to finding exclusive stories!

In 2007 when the News of the World’s former Royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were convicted and jailed for hacking into hundreds of mobile phone messages. It was seen as the work of a couple of rogue individuals, but having read Nick Davies’ book it just sounds like common Fleet Street practice.

This explains why I don’t have too much sympathy for Andy Coulson the Conservative Party’s Director of Communications who’s facing calls for his resignation. He was the Editor of the News of the World at the time of this phone tapping scandal, and resigned as a result of it. He claimed that he personally didn’t know that this type of activity was taking place.

I think that if he didn’t realise this was going on, then he wasn’t doing a very good job as editor, but he must have been aware of the general culture within his newspaper and the industry in general when it came to finding news stories.

What the last week has revealed is that sections of our press appear to be acting in a way that’s not too dissimilar to members of the secret police that you would find under some of the old communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

You also have to ask the questions of whether half the stories they obtain through some of these dodgy practices are even in the public interest. I don’t think they are.

I began to think that perhaps the general public must share a small proportion of the blame. Newspapers are increasingly struggling to make a profit, readership is declining, papers have falling advertising revenues. The race to find bigger and better exclusives is becoming ever more intense.

I read the News of the World every Sunday, mainly because I enjoy it and find it entertaining, but I suppose the fact that I along with so many other people keep buying it only demonstrates to newspaper editors that there is a market out there for many of their stories, no matter how dubious the methods are in finding them.

I remember when the News of the World ran the expose on the sex life of Max Mosely head of the FIA (International Automobile Federation) the governing body for motor sports which includes Formula 1. He ended up suing the paper for breach of privacy, and eventually won the case.

Much of the press interpreted the decision as a dark day for press freedom, and to be fair I tended to side more with the press. The Sun newspaper saw it as setting a dangerous precedent whereby it would provide in their words:

‘a cloak of secrecy behind which privileged and powerful people will be able to hide their criminal or immoral activities from the public,"

This certainly applies to MP expenses, but in the case of Max Mosely if I’m being honest, I’d never heard of the bloke before the story broke, and read the story as nothing more than a bit of titillating gossip!

Newspapers talk about the importance of press freedom and self regulation, but in order to remind the public of how important this is, they do need to get their own house in order and look at their own practices. The events of the last week have surely only proved that with little or no regulation, the press will sink to all manner of unethical activities to find a good story.

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