Sunday, 10 July 2011

Killing off the News of the World shouldn’t be an excuse for shackling the press.

The News of the World (NoW), a newspaper that traded in scandal for more than a century has finally been done down by one of its own making.

This is the sorry outcome of the phone hacking scandal that saw the paper gain, if the Metropolitan Police are to be believed, access to four thousand people’s mobile phones including those of the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and survivors of the 7/7 bombings. Even this might have been dismissed as just another example of tabloid bad behaviour if it hadn’t been revealed earlier this week that a private investigator working for the NoW had, allegedly, hacked into the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler deleting messages and giving her family false hope that she was still alive, an action that shocks you with its stupidity before angering you with its insensitivity.

A line had been crossed, the moral indignation of the British public had been stirred up and something had to be done. That in other circumstances the NoW would have been one of the loudest voices calling for heads to roll is ironic to say the very least.

On Friday it was announced that this weeks edition of the paper would be the last, in a statement to staff James Murdoch, son of the more famous Rupert, said ‘The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself. What he described as ‘wrongdoers’ in the employ of the paper under previous editors had ‘turned a good newsroom bad’ and the closure of the paper was ‘a price loyal staff are paying for the transgressions of others.’

All week official condemnation of the activities of the NoW under previous editorial regimes has been conspicuously loud. A Downing Street spokesman said the view of the Prime Minister was that ‘what matters is that all wrongdoing is exposed and those responsible brought to justice’ and that Mr Cameron was ‘committed to establishing rigorous public inquiries to make sure this never happens again.’

All of which sounds very brave; braver certainly than David Cameron looked when put on the spot about his relationship with former NoW editor and, until forced to resign in January this year over his links to the phone hacking scandal, Downing Street director of communications Andy Coulson. Standing at a lectern and backed by two union flags that his aides have obviously told him make the proceedings look a little bit ‘West Wing’ he spent most of his weekly press conference squirming with embarrassment.

Asked repeatedly about his continued support for Andy Coulson in the light of the weeks revelations Mr Cameron said ‘I don’t think it’s particularly meaningful to put a different gloss on it. People will judge me for that, I understand that.’ Judge him and find his response slower and less decisive than the situation warranted.

David Cameron even had the unusual experience this week of being trounced at PMQ’s by Ed Milliband and seeing the Labour leader, briefly, seize the initiative by using a speech given to Reuters this week to call on the PM to ‘come clean ‘ over his relationship with Andy Coulson and how much he knew about his involvement with phone hacking.

Ed Milliband used the same speech to say that the behaviour of a small group of journalists at the NoW had ‘harmed innocent victims and contaminated the reputation of British journalism.’ It is hardly surprising that a beleaguered opposition leader should seize the opportunity to attack Mr Cameron over what is a shocking lapse of judgement, but he might yes face some awkward questions himself over the behaviour of his own director of communications Tom Baldwin during his time on Fleet Street.

There is also the small matter of just how much of a reputation British journalism really has to defend. The NoW might have gone furthest when it comes to hacking into people’s mobile phones, but the press as a whole is hardly whiter than white in this respect.

Few people will mourn the demise of the News of the World and even fewer will be sorry to see Rupert Murdoch dethroned as the man who wins elections for whatever party his papers favour. Serious questions need to be asked about his suitability to gain full control of BSkyB, an issue the government had hoped would be swept neatly under the carpet, and the grip he already has on the nation’s media.

Toughening up the toothless Press Complaints Commission would also help, particularly when it comes to protecting the rights of ordinary citizens who have their privacy invaded by the press and don’t have recourse to expensive lawyers and publicists to fight their corner. Shackling the press with too much footling regulation though is not an option that should be considered in a democracy.

Even if Rupert Murdoch is despatched to spend the rest of his days croaking ‘Rosebud’ as a snow globe falls slowly from his hand something dramatic will still have to change if the press is to regain its integrity. This has nothing to do with legislation that will favour unfairly a wealthy elite and everything to do with the prevailing culture of the British media.

The sad truth is that the NoW hadn’t held anyone to account for years; the even sadder truth is that neither has the rest of the popular press. There is still a lively and intelligent ‘quality’ press but by its nature this is read by a small section of the public.

The popular press has served up an endless diet of scandal and gossip for decades, the tawdry private lives of footballers garner more column inches than national or world events and its coverage of politics treats the subject as a sort of third rate sitcom. This should be of particular concern to Ed Milliband because the Mirror, the only tabloid that, notionally at least, leans to the left is now no better than its peers; meaning that the Labour Party has lost a powerful engine for explaining and building popular support for its policies.

Things don’t have to be like this, the British public is cleverer and more curious than the media often gives it credit for being. They don’t want a Sunday Sun to take the place vacated by the News of the World, they want real news backed by rigorous research and challenging analysis of current events; if that can be served up with a little humour and a refusal to be beholden to anyone all the better.

Any paper with the courage to take such a stance, to treat its readers like engaged and thoughtful adults rather than easily distracted children might be pleasantly surprised by just how many people from all parts of the political spectrum will want to read all about what it has to say.

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