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

“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