Monday 18 July 2011

Phone-Hacking: Where do I begin?

I’m so late following up on this story.

For the last week, I’ve been thinking so much about what I want to say on this phone-hacking scandal, but everyday there’s been a new revelation, and development, you just can’t keep up.

In saying that I’ve loved it. This is one of the most exciting news stories I’ve followed in years. Phone-hacking ticks so many boxes for me - politics, journalism, crime, celebrity, it’s the ultimate news story.

For a media news geek like myself the events of the last couple of weeks have been amazing! The country's biggest selling newspaper shut down. The world's leading press baron Rupert Murdoch battling to save his company and reputation. Some of Britain's top police officers and even our own Prime Minister David Cameron directly involved.

I've been following this story for two years, and it's still impossible to predict what will happen next or where this story will end.

Rupert Murdoch

I never imagined that one day I'd see Rupert Murdoch battling to save his media empire from collapsing. He's Britain’s most powerful newspaper owner, the world’s biggest press tycoon. How has it come to this?

For many liberal, left leaning, Guardian reading types Rupert Murdoch is some sort of devil incarnated, but I’ve never felt that way towards him.

I’ve always seen Murdoch as more of an ‘evil genius’ and when I use the word genius I mean that seriously.

I got an insight into how Murdoch works as boss when reading Piers Morgan’s book the Insider.During the 1990’s Morgan was editor of the News of the World and Murdoch was his boss. Hearing Morgan talk about Murdoch, I realised that he was someone with a brilliant talent and instinct for running newspapers. As someone who also loves newspapers, I respected that.

He’s someone who controversially revolutionised the newspaper industry during the 1980s with the move to Wapping, and changed the television landscape forever with the emergence of Sky television in particular Sky Sports.

He’s also not afraid to experiment as we’ve seen with the introduction of paywalls for papers like the Times. Ok his constant attacks towards the BBC have annoyed me, and for too long he's acted like an unofficial member of cabinet for successive Tory and Labour governments. His influence on British political life has overstepped the mark on occasions.

But he’s still one of those figures I have a grudging respect for. If this is the beginning of the end for Rupert Murdoch we wont see his like again for sometime.

No way Rebecca Brooks could survive

It took a while but it was inevitable that Rebecca Brooks had to resign as chief executive of News International.

My opinions towards her are the same as those I had for Andy Coulson. If you’re an editor of a newspaper, you should know where and how your paper’s stories are being found and investigated. If you don’t know this, then you’re not doing a very good job as editor.

Politicians and the Press

You get the impression that for some MPs the phone hacking scandal has been a great opportunity to finally to take revenge against sections of the press and Murdoch’s News International.

It’s good to see politicians taking a stand against the actions of News International, but lets not forget that for so many years both Tory and Labour politicians were desperate to court favour with Rupert Murdoch and his newspaper stable.

A lot of people will agree with me when I say it wasn’t a good thing for politics in this country. Politicians are meant to act in the interests of the electorate, rather than on behalf of corporations or business tycoons with their own agendas. I know that sounds naïve but that’s how it’s suppose to be.

One person I did think of was Vince Cable – remember him? End of last year, two undercover Telegraph reporters recorded him saying how he’d ‘declared war’ on Rupert Murdoch in his attempts to take full control of BskyB. Cable was replaced by Jeremy Hunt in overseeing the decision making process for the BskyB deal.

Poor Vince declared war too early, now everyday there’s an MP coming out to attack Murdoch.

A crisis for journalism

Very few people are emerging from this scandal with any credit, and when I think about it, journalism itself as profession and industry in the UK has been damaged.

None of this phone hacking revelations has come as a surprise to me, I read all about it 3 years ago, in the book Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned this book on my blog and unlikely to be the last.

If you love journalism and the press you need to read this book. In it, Davies explains that phone-hacking is just one of many dodgy and unethical methods used in the pursuit of news stories by many papers and not just the News of the World.

One of the reasons this story hasn’t come out before is that newspapers weren’t going to report on their own criminal activities, and as we’ve been discovering the police weren’t going to investigate, mainly because they were involved themselves. Nick Davies describes how newspapers have routinely bribed police officers for information.

I understand that in some circumstances in order to investigate serious or sensitive matters, the normal rules and accepted standards of investigation may have to be sacrificed.

The problem with phone-hacking is that it’s hard to justify the need to hack into the phones of murder victims or celebrities. It's a case of invading people's privacy for no obvious reason.

Previously I thought the MP expenses scandal represented the very best in investigative journalism - holding those in power to account and unveiling some of the criminal actions of our elected leaders – this was truly in the public interest.

Until it was shut down, I read the News of the World every week. I always enjoyed reading it, but I know that for all those genuinely good investigative stories the paper published; such as Pakistan cricket scandal, there were so many other stories that were trivial. The Max Moseley case is one that springs to mind.

Exposing the fact that he enjoyed a bit of S&M in his private life really wasn’t in the public interest. It was just a bit of titillation about someone most people had never heard of.

Despite this, I still bought the paper and in doing so continued to show there was a market for such stories.

My main concern now is that many people will rightly feel that the press has gone too far with phone hacking, and that tighter regulation must be introduced.

You’re hearing this argument from many people especially politicians. The cynic in me says it would suit politicians and those with power and influence to have a weaker press - one that wasn’t so intrusive.

Going back to MPs Expenses would that story have emerged if we had a weaker over regulated press? I don't think so.

Despite the actions of the News of the World, I take the view that the press when it acts responsibly is there to monitor and hold to account those individuals who purport to act in our interests.

Ironically, by not monitoring or regulating itself properly, journalism in this country may have weakened itself significantly.

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