Good or bad week for the press?

09 Jul 2011 0
News of the World poster
Photo: Kadeeae (via Flickr)

Following the extraordinary developments in the phone-hacking scandal this week, I’ve had the feeling of reading one of those choose-your-own-adventure books that I used to love as a kid, where every page presents you with a choice, and every choice sends the story in a weird new direction. After David Cameron’s press conference on Friday I half expected to see a message saying ‘Turn to page 1 to start the adventure again’ so I could roll the dice differently and maybe get the Rebekah Brooks becomes Prime Minister ending or the Hugh Grant turns out to be an alien ending or the Alan Rusbridger wakes up and it was all a dream ending.

I’ve accepted now that the week’s events really did happen. What I’m having trouble deciding is whether it has been a good or bad week for the British press. The News of the World, the country’s biggest-selling national paper, died. So should we be celebrating or mourning? As a victim of phone-hacking, Steve Coogan said last night that the closure of the News of the World was “a small victory for decency and humanity” and that he was “delighted”. On the other hand, those with more affection for the News of the World’s heritage – or for its employees – called it a sad day.

I work as a journalist so I want the press to be respected and its freedoms to be protected. On that basis, here are some poorly organised thoughts about what kind of week it’s been:

Firstly, what sort of state was the British press in before all this? Optimists would say flux, pessimists would say decline. Print circulations are falling as new media take over, but the press hasn’t reinvented itself, and a sustainable model of online journalism has yet to be settled on. As for regulation, the tabloid press prints pretty much what it likes because the PCC is toothless – in fact, the Star and the Express ignore it completely.

The News of the World did a lot of harm. We already knew that it invaded privacy, damaged lives and reinforced myths and stereotypes about issues like crime, immigration and benefits. Now we know the extent to which it also intimidated politicians, broke the law and bribed police officers. But for the most part it just peddled a combination of tittle tattle and right-wing self-righteousness, sprinkled with casual sexism and xenophobia. I defend their right to do that as part of a free press but if you ask me it shows contempt for readers. The counterargument, of course, is that the tabloids just “give people what they want”, and that if you look down on the tabloids you’re looking down on the millions of ordinary people who read them. Wrong. Playing on people’s fears and prejudices is not “giving people what they want”, it’s manipulating them. I also think it’s pandering to a shrinking section of society, and is out of step with what people want from media these days.

But let’s not forget that The News of the World did some good. Recently it exposed the Pakistan cricket cheating scandal, for example – an important story that might not otherwise have come to light. It also caught the Duchess of York offering to provide access to Prince Andrew for cash, although the ethics of how it went about it are questionable. Even in more frivolous stories, it has revealed public figures to be liars, bullies or hypocrites.

Either way, Britain’s best-selling paper just died. Simply in terms of its commercial success and ability to appeal to its audience, the News of the World was exceptional. It was one of the few remaining success stories in the print world – in fact it subsidised its upmarket stablemates The Times. Even if a Sun on Sunday rises from its ashes, it’s hard to see how the closure can do anything but hasten the decline of more print titles.

Speaking of which, many of the other papers have failed in their reporting of this scandal, either because they’re also Murdoch-owned or because they have their own skeletons they’d rather keep closet-bound. According to the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Mirror and the Mail have the most to worry about – hence their near silence on the phone-hacking scandal until recently. Yesterday, when most of the papers were following the arrest of Andy Coulson and the revelations of a possible News International cover-up, the Mail’s website chose to lead with the headline: “It’s a royal rodeo: Wild Will Hickock and Calamity Kate cause a stampede as they don matching hats and get into the cowboy spirit”.

It’s sad but not surprising that News International sister titles The Sun and The Times also failed to report properly on the phone-hacking story, until the crescendo of outrage got so loud that they had to. Look at this half-baked rant from The Times’ Roger Alton – this from a paper that charges for online access to its expert analysis.

The complacency, cowardice and vested interests of the mainstream press, and their failure to rise to this occasion, may do as much harm as what happened at the News of the World itself.

The week has been a wonderful demonstration of people power. A social media campaign which, wisely, targeted The News of the World’s advertisers, achieved more than it can ever have hoped for. Mumsnet users insisted that the site ditch its deals with Sky – because the broadcaster is part-owned by Murdoch.

All week we’ve had the unedifying sight of politicians, Murdoch employees and journalists forced to change their views on things because of public pressure. What is obvious today to David Cameron, Ed Miliband, James Murdoch and Dominic Mohan was simply not mentioned by them a few days ago. As John Finnemore said on Radio 4’s The Now Show: “They all changed their mind this week because we shouted louder than they expected.”

Alongside the worst of British journalism, we’ve seen some of the best. Who was it who exposed the rotten journalists? Not the police – they were in on the whole thing. Not parliament – they were too terrified to do anything. Not the regulator – they were taken for fools. It was other journalists – most notably the Guardian, which has beavered away at this for years in the face of secrecy, corruption, lies and intimidation.

Change has been kickstarted this week – but where will it lead? It’s true that the PCC is a waste of time, but it’s also true that it’s very hard to get regulation right, and this particular scandal involves lawbreaking which goes beyond the remit of a self-regulatory body anyway. I fear now that public disgust at the iniquity of News International will lead to over-regulation, which won’t do us any good.

We must remember that journalism relies on getting information that people don’t want to give to you, and the current code recognises that journos pursuing stories in the public interest (not just of interest to the public) must sometimes blur or cross lines. All sorts of nastiness would have remained unknown and unchallenged if people hadn’t done that over the years.

Statutory regulation would, in my view, be a really bad idea. As Amy Davidson says in the New Yorker that the Guardian’s role in uncovering all this suggests the last thing we should do is take power away from the media and give it to politicians. I hope the inquiry into press ethics which the PM has announced will be sensible and independent and that we get a proper debate on this.

On balance, I’d say the week has offered us a chance to make things better. Finally the power and pernicious influence of the Murdoch empire (of which Marina Hyde paints a beautiful picture here) is out in the open. Finally unscrupulous hacks are in the public eye. Finally there’s an opportunity for a serious debate about proper regulation. Finally the dysfunctional relationship between politicians, the media and the public has been shaken up. If this leads to a healthier relationship (and I find it hard to imagine how it could lead to a less healthy one), then it’s been a bloody brilliant week.

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