In the language of tabloid journalism, the death of the News of the World, followed less than 24 hours later by the arrest of its former editor Andy Coulson, stunned the nation. But it’s far from the end of the story. Indeed, it may be merely the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. The most optimistic analysis of these momentous events is that we may be about to embark on a new era in British journalism – one in which even the most sensationalist tabloids behave in a more responsible way. A more pessimistic view is that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
At the heart of this extraordinary series of events is, of course, the revelations about phone hacking. It was bad enough when only celebrities and politicians seemed to be the victims of illegal phone-hacking by investigators working for red-top newspapers. The almost daily revelation of new targets among the innocent and distressed brought journalism to an unimaginable low in the eyes of the public. The crisis may have implications that go far beyond the practice of journalism itself. What’s gone wrong? And what can be done to put it right?
As yet we are still in the world of allegations and putting two and two together. But the huge list of private phone numbers found among the papers of Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who worked for the News of the World and who has already served a prison sentence for illegal phone-hacking, suggests that the targets for intrusion into privacy may well have gone far beyond anything previously imagined.
Over the last week we have learned that the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the murdered teenager, may not only have been hacked into in the early days after her disappearance but may have had items deleted from it, so hampering police investigations into what had happened to her. The families of other murder victims, such as Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, have also been told by the police that their phones may have been hacked into by private investigators. So too the families of the victims of the London bombings of July 2005 and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan now have reason to believe that they may have had their phone conversations pried into by investigators looking for a story at the moment when their lives had been turned upside down and they were suffering acute grief.
These revelations have produced a universal outpouring of disgust and condemnation from the Prime Minister down. They have seemed to show that there are no depths to which journalism is not prepared to sink in order to get a story. David Cameron has ordered two inquiries, one into the full extent of phone-hacking at the News of the World; the other into why police investigations into the matter appeared to brush so much under the carpet, an issue that many people regard as intimately linked to the admitted fact that some red-top newspapers have paid police for information leading to good stories.
No one is coming forward to defend the alleged practices which the new revelations imply. Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International, publisher of the News of the World, has said they would be deplorable if proved to be true. But if such widespread use of phone-hacking is inexcusable it is not inexplicable.
Tabloid journalism has become far more competitive over recent years and this has had the effect of loosening the ethical constraints on journalists in search of a story. The competition has come not so much from rival newspapers as from the internet and the new social media, where stories fly around unconstrained by the lawyers who still need to make sure that newspapers don’t print things that will get them into trouble.
New technology too has changed the nature of the competitive race. Whereas much tabloid journalism used to be done through door-stepping and the use of the long-range lens, now it can be done by hacking into voicemail and emails.
What remains the same is the public’s apparent appetite for the stories that are produced. Prurience about the sex lives of celebrities seems to be matched only by prurience about the grief of the distressed. A tabloid journalist or investigator fed up with the moral outrage pouring from the public after recent revelations could point out that it is only because the public wants the stuff they are producing that they are rummaging in the gutter to get it: the News of the World sells more copies than any other paper in Britain. But that defence is unlikely to be heard in the current climate. Instead, the reaction is that something must be done to stop such appalling practices.
Up to now the press has robustly defended the principle of self-regulation. The guardian of this way of doing things has been the Press Complaints Commission, but this has been almost universally condemned as having failed in its job. The alternative is for Parliament to legislate to regulate the press.
The problem with this is that it’s far from clear how exactly to do it. There have been calls for a new privacy law, which would protect people from the sort of gross intrusion we are seeing evidence of now. But how to draw up a privacy law which would protect the innocent while allowing the press to do its job of exposing the guilty is proving difficult. There is also the fear that if, in reaction to the current unacceptable excesses of the press, regulation was drawn up that was too draconian, the freedom of the press, so valued in democracies, could be in peril.
Some argue that the market can regulate things satisfactorily on its own. So great has been the public revulsion at what is alleged to have gone on at the News of the World, that some leading advertisers, including Ford, have decided to stop advertising in the paper, at least for the time being. That, say opponents of regulation, is far more likely to bring the papers into line with regard to acceptable behaviour than bureaucratic regulation.
The problem with that, though, is that tabloid newspapers will continue to be squeezed for stories by the social media. How to stay in business, while behaving in a way that does not bring opprobrium on it from the public and from advertisers, is a conundrum the tabloid press has to still to work out.
Meanwhile, David Cameron, while leading the moral outrage against the alleged journalistic practices of the News of the World, has other worries connected with it. His Government is currently considering an application for News International to buy up the stakes in BSkyB it does not already hold. If it acts to prevent this, it will alienate a powerful force in the media which has up to now been largely supportive of the Government. But if it acquiesces, the Government risks being accused of being in the pocket of an organisation associated with the new allegations of despicable journalistic practice.
Even more troubling for the Prime Minister is the way the story may develop with regard to his former director of communications, Andy Coulson. Mr. Cameron employed Mr. Coulson even after the latter had resigned as editor of the News of the World after the first revelations of phone hacking emerged some years ago. Mr. Coulson has always claimed that he did nothing wrong and resigned simply because he was in charge of the paper when the illegal practice of phone-hacking was going on. But if Mr. Coulson is now found to be implicated in any of the new allegations of wrong-doing, then things could become tricky for the Prime Minister. Ed Miliband has already accused him of a 'catastrophic error of judgement' in employing the former News of the World editor in Downing Street. Some Tories agree. Time will tell whether it proves to be a decision that will permanently damage David Cameron.
What’s your view?
- Was News International right to close the News of the World?
- Are you surprised by what has been revealed and do you share the sense of outrage about it?
- What do you make of the argument that the public is hypocritical in condemning what appears to have gone on when the News of the World sold more copies than any other paper in Britain?
- Are you troubled or not by the relationship between the tabloid press and the police?
- Do you think the press should go on being self-regulated or should the government introduce new regulations for the press?
- Should the government allow News International to buy up the rest of BSkyB
- Should David Cameron have employed Andy Coulson?
- And do you think the tabloid press will start to behave better, or will everything go on much as before once the current furore has died down?