The News Of The World: everyone’s at it

mobile by donknuth(Photo by donknuth, used under Creative Commons licence.)

The News Of The World’s first strike back at the Guardian is pretty unconvincing, calling the stories “ferocious and, at times, hysterical attacks on its credibility, integrity and journalistic standards” while also having to admit that the hacking, the blagging and the snooping all went on. All that’s really under discussion is the number of crimes committed, and the extent of management complicity.

The paper’s self-defence is less shaky when it turns round to attack the Guardian’s own sometime news practices:

No newspaper, least of all the Guardian, is perfect. Nor is our craft a perfect science. Its practitioners are human. They misbehave and make mistakes for which they – rightly – pay a heavy price. So let us remember that it was the Guardian that knowingly, deliberately and illegally forged a cabinet minister’s signature to get an exclusive story. It was the Guardian that cynically abandoned one of journalism’s most fundamental and sacred covenants by revealing the identity of a confidential informant.

New Of The World, “No inquiries, no charges, no evidence”

The NOTW doesn’t come out and say that a story is a story by any mean necessary, because one of the problems they’ve got is that almost all what they were doing falls a long way outside of a public interest defence: when WikiLeaks defends the NOTW’s cheap inbox hacking by comparing those findings to tape recordings of corrupt South American politicians, the mismatch between the authority claimed by journalists and the use they put it to feels more like a devastating criticism than the winning argument it’s supposed to be. It’s hard to feel like there’s a democratic principle being exercised everytime someone snoops on Vanessa Feltz’s voicemail (and while John Prescott might be the most vocal victim at the moment, he’s also probably one of the most defensible targets).

But it’s accepted that journalists will do bad things in search of a good story, and they’re allowed certain privileges legally and culturally for that reason. Blunt, a local newspaper editor who blogs pseudonymously at Playing The Game, pushes this line hard:

It will be fun to watch this unfold and every major national paper is likely to get dragged into it but what actual purpose does it serve?
Journalists often lie, cheat, beg, borrow, and steal for a cracking story.
But is using subterfuge really that bad to expose the porkie pies of others, especially celebrities. Those vacuous arseholes who only want publicity when it serves their own purposes but, in the words of Dad’s Army, ‘don’t like it up ’em’.
I agree that it may got out of hand over at News Int’s factory farming of mobiles (ALLEGEDLY) but, Christ, good intel is still good intel wherever it comes from.
Many people say what gives us the right to appoint ourselves the moral bastions of this country. But I would argue that because most good journalists are essentially amoral – it goes beyond what we think is right or wrong.

Playing The Game, “House of cards”

The problem with this, though, is that it starts out claiming that journalism is working to a higher standard than the law, and ends by saying that it’s amoral, playing out in a few lines the cognitive dissonance that the News Of The World was trying to avoid over several paragraphs. You can be immoral and inside the law, and claim to be untouchable; or you can be outside the law and morally inspired, and claim special privileges.

But when you demand extra-legal privileges so that you can pursue your amoral craft – well, then you’re not making an appeal for sympathy so much as inviting crushing regulation on your own trade. Giving evidence to the select committee on culture, media and sport, Ian Hislop said “It’s dangerous to let Mr Mosley impose his anger at what happened to him to allow him to change the law.” One of the problems with the mass invasion engaged in by the NOTW is that they may well have created scores more mini-Mosleys, some of whom may well have the fury, the political sympathy and the private means to push for legal changes.

Scale counts, of course. The comparison with the MP’s expenses scandal works on two levels, as Fleet Street Blues points out: because that was an example of longstanding and fairly mundane malpractice that suddenly hit the headlines, and because it’s also an example of a very good story picked up nefariously. Lots of MPs need a second home, but that doesn’t mean they should get away with a moat. Journalists need stories, but a scoop like expenses doesn’t justify low-grade habitual spying. Throwing out the logic of the newsroom as justification risks dragging down the good stuff with the dicey, and journalists who fervently believe that there’s nothing to see here might be wise to remember the treatment that they – and MPs – dealt to Speaker Martin.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

3 thoughts on “The News Of The World: everyone’s at it

  1. The Guardian’s ‘cod fax’ helpd prove Jonathan Aitken was a liar and I believe Peter Preston resigned from the PCC over it.
    In the other case, revealing that its source in the cruise missile story was Sarah Tisdall and so ensuring she was jailed was a low point. “Spineless as a jelly fish” as Paul Foot described it.
    But in the first instance the target was a cabinet minister up to his neck in wrongdoing and in the second a matter of national importance where the country and parliament might have been misled.
    It doesn’t excuse the outing of Tisdall but I think both pass the ‘Vanessa Feltz test’. They weren’t fishing expeditions against non-entities.
    You can read Preston’s explanation for the second incident here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2005/sep/05/pressandpublishing.politicsandthemedia

  2. Quite. I think that in strict terms of self-preservation NOTW is smart to move this onto the ground of whether journalists should do ‘bad’ things for good stories, and steer clear of the specifics of what they were doing. The paper is going to be hurt less individually if the debate takes that route, but the trade could be hurt more in the end.

    Thanks for the links and background.

  3. Wheeling out the old “Journalists are just human, they pay the price for errors of judgement” defence smacks of the classic politicians’ “Mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned” autoresponse. And Murdoch’s retaliatory slap at The Guardian is exactly like Gordon Brown saying “But of course, it was all MUCH worse under the Tories”. You couldn’t fit a slice of parma ham between them.

    I don’t know what that proves, other than politicians are horrid, corporate megaliths are horrid, and the world is going to hell in a handcart. Business as usual, in other words.

    Can you imagine strong regulation being imposed on journalism? Do you think this may happen? Can’t help thinking the symbiotic relationship between politics and mainstream media in a democracy (oligarchy? corporatocracy? but I quibble…) is such that no strong limits will ever be placed on the papers, even if Murdoch gets a spell on the naughty step for this episode. Hmmmm.

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