Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been gripped by the continual and ever more shocking revelations in the phone-hacking scandal.
It may be just because as a journalist by training, and a media consultant by profession, I’ve got a particular interest, but the implications of the fall-out could touch us all.
A few random thoughts:
- The revelations about the behaviour of journalists don’t really surprise me: every journalist worth their salt should be desperate to get a story that makes the splash (front page) and some are always going to be prepared to cross the line to get it.
- The media is an extremely competitive environment. You are only as good as your last scoop, and if you don’t shape up, you’re out. In that atmosphere, you have to go to extreme lengths to prove yourself. The favourite expression of one of my editors (not on a newspaper, but at the BBC) was: ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’. In an atmosphere where people are scared of the consequences if they don’t produce the goods, they will go to extreme lengths.
- ‘Blagging’, the ‘tapping up’ of police officers and others, the use of private investigators and other methods the general public might think cross the line have all gone on for decades. When I worked on Fleet Street in the 1990s, it was well known there was someone (who’s name I can’t now remember) who went down bins for a living to discover things about those in the public eye. In fact the wife of Jonathon Powell has talked recently about how notes of her husband’s that she’d thrown away ended up on the front page of the Sunday Times.
- What’s changed in recent years is the advances in technology which make intrusion into private lives far easier, and able to go far farther.
- Journalists generally use the ‘public interest’ defence for their actions, but there is a difference between what is genuinely in the ‘public interest’ and what generally interests the public.
- People get the newspapers they deserve. If they demanded newspapers full of fearless investigations into wrong-doing rather than celebrity tittle tattle, that’s what the newspapers would publish. And if people only bought high-brow broadsheets, the tabloids would have gone out of business many years ago.
- Intrusion is not just one way traffic. Newspaper phones ring continually with people offering stories about their friends, associates, enemies – prepared to make some money at the expense of other people. That’s always been the case. I worked on a tabloid at the time when Fred and Rose West had just been arrested (so getting on for 20 years ago), and the newsroom phone was continually ringing with people with often the most spurious connection to the couple who wanted to sell their story.
- My fear over the inquiry into the ethics of journalism and of future of press regulation is that in the fevered atmosphere that’s currently surrounding journalistic behaviour, there’s a danger a knee-jerk reaction which will throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s vital that we have a press that is able to investigate wrong-doing and expose the corrupt and criminal. If the regulations imposed on how journalists behave are too stringent, this will become very difficult.
- I did a fair amount of investigative journalism while at the BBC, and employed a fair few of the tactics currently being castigated as immoral. As a result, one of the few people I’ve ever met who I actually thought was evil went to prison, and many others were put out of business because we exposed the appalling methods they used to rip off ordinary people, causing untold misery and distress. I am proud of this journalism. No-one will ever persuade me that the undercover methods we used to uncover their activities was wrong.
So I will be continuing to watch as the fallout from the phone-hacking saga unfolds. And hope that proper journalism is not a casualty.