This is such a fast-moving and ridiculously complicated story that in all probability this post will be completely out of date the second it goes up – bear with me!
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last two weeks, you can’t fail to have noticed the distinctly disturbing rumblings emanating from the depths of the Wapping HQ of Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire. Or at least that’s where the rumblings started. Despite an investigation into whether the News Of The World had hacked the phones of various celebrities and politicians that goes back almost a decade, it seems that News International assumed they could keep the worst of it well and truly hidden.
Hidden until now, that is.
Since Nick Davies and his team at The Guardian revealed at the beginning of July that the News Of The World had engaged in some truly repellent behaviour in the shape of hacking the mobile phones of the families of high-profile murder victims, these long-standing rumblings have turned into a massive and seemingly unstoppable shitstorm which has managed to drag not only News International but also the government and the Metropolitan Police into its increasingly unpleasant wake.
This unprecedented scandal has thus far resulted in the collapse of a 168 year old national newspaper, the resignation of both a number of senior News International employees (several of whom, including Rebekah Brooks, have also been arrested) and two extremely senior Metropolitan Police officers, NI backing out of the possibility of a deal that would give them complete control of Sky television, last night’s hacking of the NI websites by the infamous LulzSec, and the summoning of Rupert and James Murdoch to give evidence to a parliamentary committee this afternoon.
The saddest in this almost never-ending stream of revelations is yesterday’s sudden but apparently “not suspicious” death of Sean Hoare, the first News Of The World journalist to go on record about the whole hacking saga – and the man who first pointed the finger of responsibility well and truly at the ex-News Of The World editor Andy Coulson. And yes, that’s the very same Andy Coulson who then went on to work for and be bezzie mates with one D. Cameron MP, thus bringing the scandal right (back?) into the heart of government.
Oh what a tangled web…
Long-time Murdoch watchers won’t have been surprised that the News Of The World had managed to sink so low in the first place – after all, it is well-known that its stablemate The Sun is still boycotted on Merseyside for refusing to apologise for what was basically a revolting libel against the Liverpool FC fans who were caught up in 1989’s horrific Hillsborough disaster.
And the News Of The World is – probably – by no means the only guilty Fleet Street party – all too believable rumours have been flying round cyberspace that similar underhand and dishonest tactics have long been used by other, non-News International titles to get ‘exclusive’ stories.
The unpleasant possibility that family members of the 9/11 victims were also hacked has opened up what could be a whole new can of worms on the other side of the Atlantic, meaning that this whole thing is big and getting bigger – a fact acknowledged by the legendary investigative reporter Carl Bernstein (who, with his colleague Bob Woodward, uncovered the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s government in the early 1970s). In an article for Newsweek, Bernstein comments:
Murdoch and his global media empire have a lot to answer for. He has not merely encouraged the metastasis of cutthroat tabloid journalism on both sides of the Atlantic. But perhaps just as troubling, authorities in Britain may respond to popular outrage at the scandal by imposing the kind of regulations that cannot help but undermine a truly free press.
The events of recent days are a watershed for Britain, for the United States, and for Rupert Murdoch. Tabloid journalism—and our tabloid culture—may never be the same.
The News Of The World scandal could, as Bernstein suggests, change everything. And it should. The whole media needs to change for the better, not just the tabloid sector. The British media has long needed to change – it desperately needs to become more responsible and accountable and less power-hungry, but that shouldn’t happen because of political knee-jerk reactions that result in a non-free or less-free press. That is crucially important. And it shouldn’t mean that journalists should suddenly have to reveal all their sources either – just be a damn sight more circumspect as to how they acquire and use those sources.
It also shouldn’t mean that senior politicians and police chiefs continue to cosy up to tabloid editors and chief execs in order to ‘improve’ their image in the press (although it must be said that press barons have, in return, long had what can only be described as an unhealthy influence on politics) – politicians and the police have proved time and time again that they need to learn to deal with scandal, bad press and their media image in a more grown-up, less secretive and – quite frankly – much less corrupt fashion.
The actions of The Guardian in doggedly investigating and breaking this story are a clear indicator of how it can be done – how it should be done. At its best, good investigative journalism is a powerful and necessary force for change; at its worst, it ruins lives. Like all things, the media can never be truly perfect, as Nick Davies himself put it in 2008:
There never was a time when news media were perfect. Journalists have always worked with too little time and too little certainty; with interference from owners and governments; with laws that intimidate and inhibit the search for truth.
True though this is, the media still has to change. The nasty tactics used by the News Of The World, and the likelihood that they are not the only ones with their grubby fingers in such unethical pies (just the only ones to be caught – so far) suggests to me that the tabloid press (at least) in this country hit rock bottom quite some time ago.
Let’s hope the only way it can go after all this is up.
Incidentally, I was interested to note that my local newsagent still had two large piles of unwanted copies of the final News Of The World last Friday – a full five days after it came out. And, slightly bizarrely, another local newsagent actually gave me a free copy of The Sunday Times at the weekend… Desperation?