“The sheer thrill of disclosure”

When Rebekah Wade gave her Cudlipp lecture this January, her description of the journalistic process was breathless excitement with a few throwaway suggestions of democratic principle:

Our ancient craft is to tell many people what few people know. The sheer thrill of disclosure motivates the best journalists. And as an industry, we should use our collective power to campaign for the freedom to do so. […]

One efficient, if immoral, way of telling many people what few people know is to hack mobile phone inboxes while fishing for stories – a practice for which Wade’s employer News International has had to pay £1m in compensation. And the Guardian’s front page story on the News Of The World’s surveillance habits (by Nick Davies, who has been following the use of dark arts in newsrooms for some years now) is also a great example of telling many what few people know. Except that, according to Wade’s lecture, scrutiny of the media is a special case where disclosure ought to be avoided:

Sometimes I suspect most of the media commentariat are suffering from Munchausen syndrome. They are certainly making us suffer unnecessarily! Only journalism allows us to exist. Yet they often decry its existence. And it’s the epitome of self-flagellation when The Guardian publishes Max Mosley’s views on press freedom. The relentless negativity, this almost morbid fascination with our own demise, must stop. […] You would understand if the public were interested in our navel-gazing. But they are not.

News International papers are currently avoiding navel gazing with admirable consistency: the Sun and the News Of The World aren’t running the story at all, while the Times has tucked the story away in their “More News” section. This is a story with many angles – privacy, self-regulation, the role of the police, the relationship between media corporations and parliament. It just happens that all these angles conflict with the mission statement that Wade lay out at the end of her lecture:

We need to ask ourselves: Can we unite to fight against a privacy law that has no place in a democracy ? Can we agree that self-regulation is the best way to deal with the occasional excesses of a free press? Can we have a press that has the courage and commitment to listen to and fight for its readers? Can we survive this economic climate if we keep investment in journalism at the heart of what we do? I suggest to you tonight: in the words of Bob The Builder, plagiarised by Barak Obama. Yes. We. Can.

Wade’s employers have been “investing in journalism” by invading privacy and then paying off the victims with huge compensation. Self-regulation has failed to deal with that practice. And she proposes that the newspaper industry “listen to and fight for” their readers by hiding their own workings from the people who consume their product. The real excitement in this story is that it offers to throw wide open all those things that Wade would rather nobody talked about.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

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