The revelations of misdeeds committed by the British tabloid News of the World are horrific but should not be surprising. There have been suspicions about the paper’s behavior for years but a perverse fascination with its reporting — like the inability to not watch a car wreck — and a casual refusal to contemplate where its information came from inoculated the tabloid from serious scrutiny. On top of these, the paper had a far-too-cozy relationship with institutions that are supposed to check journalistic misbehavior.
Efforts to fix these problems need to focus on the behavior and the environment that permitted them, rather than just the illegal acts (and their condoning) by a few individuals.
NoW, as the paper is known, had been accused of phone hacking in the past, but those victims were royals and celebrities (and in the world of such journalism, seemingly legitimate targets) and the instances were said to be limited.
The perpetrators — editors, reporters and private investigators — were fired and imprisoned and the paper paid settlements. Investigations by the Metropolitan Police, the Press Complaints Commission and a House of Commons committee concluded that the affair had been concluded.
Those targets continued to complain, however, and a steady drip of revelations turned to a flood. That wave crested when a rival newspaper reported that News of the World, a 168-year-old icon of British publishing owned by Mr. Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-turned-American media magnate, and the largest selling paper in the United Kingdom, had hacked the cellphone of a teenage girl who had gone missing in 2002. The hackers deleted messages to free up space on her mailbox, giving reporters more fodder to publish and (inadvertently) sparking hope that she might be alive, thinking that she deleted the messages.
In fact, the girl had been murdered by a man whose trial concluded earlier this summer.
Revelations snowballed this summer, among them a revelation that relatives of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq had been hacked, along with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Public revulsion mounted, culminating in a boycott of the paper by advertisers, the closure of NoW (its last issue was published July 10), the resignation of top officials in Mr. Murdoch’s news empire, an appearance by Mr. Murdoch and his son before the House of Commons at which they denied all wrongdoing while apologizing for what happened, and the termination of his takeover bid for BSkyB, the subscription television service of which he owns a portion.
It is unlikely that the damage to Mr. Murdoch’s empire has been halted; more revelations are certain to follow. Investigations in the United States are being launched to see whether similar acts were committed there.
There are three broad sets of implications from this disturbing episode. The first, most obviously, is the need for better standards of journalism and the recognition that the hunger for news — or more appropriately gossip — must have limits. There were guilty parties at the NoW, but they were encouraged by a culture within the paper and, sadly, more generally within the tabloid press, that hungers for ever-more salacious and personal information and confuses such tidbits with news.
Of course, journalists and publishers say that they are only giving the public what it wants, and there is some truth to that. But there needs to be more self-restraint and acknowledgement of limits. This should be enforced internally, by the profession itself; we do not endorse government regulation of the press.
There are times, however, when journalists violate the law and the second dimension of this scandal is the degree to which the British law enforcement authorities were compromised by their relationship with NoW.
It has been revealed that Metropolitan Police were paid by NoW journalists for information. This relationship worked two ways, with journalists getting information from the police and the police getting favorable coverage in the press.
When it was revealed that the police had not reviewed some 11,000 documents before reassuring the public and officials that earlier hacks were isolated incidents, it became clear that Scotland Yard was complicit in illegal behavior as well.
This is corruption, pure and simple.
The final element of this sordid tale is the relationship between journalists and the world of politics. Mr. Murdoch has been called the “25th seat in the Cabinet,” an invisible presence that has dominated British politics for several decades.
Politicians across the ideological spectrum courted him and his newspaper, no doubt contributing to the feeling among journalists that they were above the law.
Prime Minister David Cameron has conceded that there is a “cosy and comfortable” relationship between politicians, the press and the police.
Journalists must always be close to the people and the institutions that they follow. They need access to get facts and tell a story. All sources have agendas, but it is up to the journalist to maintain some commitment to the truth; his or her obligation is to the audience, not to the source.
A journalist must endeavor to ensure that an unvarnished version of the truth emerges. Compromises perhaps are inevitable but criminal behavior is not. There is a slippery slope but choices are made. Journalists, like everyone else, must be aware of the consequences of their choices, be discouraged from making the wrong ones and punished when they break the law. That should not be so hard to accomplish.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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