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‘Deplorable and indefensible’: the ethics of the News of the World

The phones of victims of the London bombings were allegedly hacked by staff at the News of the World. AFP/Dylan Martine/WPA pool
NOTW execs face tough questions. AFP/Ben Stansall

The British newspaper The News of the World is being investigated over allegations of hacking into the phones of relatives of the victims of the bombings in London in July 2005. It’s also thought those working at the paper deleted voicemails from the phone of murdered missing teenager Milly Dowler, in an attempt to free up her mailbox to listen to future messages, giving her parents false hope that she may still be alive.

She was found murdered six months later. Four years ago, one of the paper’s reporters was jailed for intercepting the messages of public figures.

The Conversation spoke to Dr Denis Muller, who teaches media ethics at Swinburne University and conducts research into media ethics at the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

Are you surprised by the latest allegations of widespread hacking by the News of the World?

I’m sorry to say it doesn’t surprise me that the News of the World has been involved in this. It’s got an appalling track record on ethical issues. The yellow end of the British tabloid press has been doing this type of thing for decades.

All the pressure that David Calcutt and others have tried to bring to bear has come to nothing. And the Chair of the Press Complaints Commission wringing her hands saying there’s nothing we can do shows what a mess the self-regulation system is in.

The private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire said in a statement that there was “relentless pressure” on him. Does this indicate a wider ethical problem among management at the newspaper?

We can’t be sure but the evidence we have so far suggests both editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson knew about this. The company seems happy to hang Coulson out to dry but they’re trying to protect Brooks [who is now chief executive of News International]. But the damage is done. All these statements from News International apologising to people and saying they’re fully co-operating need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

What ethical issues are at stake here?

Laws protect mail and phones from interception because our society recognises these are private to the parties unless there is a clear public interest in having them disclosed, in which case the state needs a warrant from the courts to intercept them. The same principles apply to the media. There is no demonstrable public interest served by this hacking.

This is clearly against the private interests of the parties concerned, without any countervailing public interest being served.

It is therefore ethically indefensible.

What harm has been done to the victims of this hacking?

Under the harm principle, if harm is to be done – and sometimes the media inflict justifiable harm – there must be strong public interest reasons for doing so.

In this particular case, if the allegations turn out to be true, harm has clearly been done to the parents of Milly Dowler and to the surviving relatives of people killed in the 7/7 terrorist attacks, in the one case by falsely raising hopes that Milly was alive, and in the other by creating anger and distress that emotional and intimate conversations were eavesdropped on.

Public interest is not the same as public curiosity. A matter is of public interest if it concerns the safety or welfare of the public; or is an issue on which the people as citizens need to be informed about in order to participate in the political or economic life of society; or reveals wrongdoing which affects the public.

Andy Coulson went on to become British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Director of Communications and resigned after a NOTW reporter was jailed for phone hacking. Does this scandal have the potential to reverberate through the political world, too?

David Cameron got rid of Coulson back in January. Appointing Coulson in the first place shows he’s capable of making some very poor choices, but I don’t think it goes beyond that. What is interesting is that that Ford Motor Company and others are thinking of withdrawing their advertising – that’s one course of action which might be effective.

This advertising isn’t being withdrawn over an editorial matter, but an ethical one. To stop advertising to intimidate a news organisation into not running a story which isn’t helpful to a company is wrong, but to stop in order to dissociate your company from an ethical issue is perfectly justifiable. That might be the only language that News International understands.

The former chairman of the Conservative Party, Lord Fowler, said this is “one of the biggest scandals affecting the press in living memory”. Is this the British Watergate?

You can’t put it in the same league. Watergate was about a crime which captured the political system. But this is one of the greatest scandals in modern British media history. I suppose the only one which would have come close to it is death of Princess Diana when she was pursued by press photographers into the tunnel in Paris. This is far more serious because of the implications that the privacy of ordinary citizens and victims of crime is being invaded. If this turns out to be true, it is an awful, deplorable and indefensible piece of work.

The idea of payments being made to police officers is clearly corrupt. There is no distinction between that and handing out bribes. I don’t see how this issue is going to be resolved without an inquiry with the powers of a parliamentary inquiry or a Royal Commission.

Does the Australian media adhere to a more strict ethical code than newspapers in the UK?

We have no history at all in Australia of press of the yellow kind. That’s because there has never been the same level of competition that exists in the UK. There, it’s very centred on London, and there are so many more newspapers competing for the national audience, even if they’re competing for difference socio-economic markets.

There are only two national newspapers here: the Financial Review and The Australian. Each state capital is at best a two-newspaper town, so there isn’t that intense competition. I think also that the Australian public would not put up with that sort of behaviour for five minutes.

There would be some serious business problems for the papers here. The history of the yellow press in the UK goes back a long long way and it’s not disconnected from the class system in the UK where people like to be titillated by stories of the royals and celebrities.

Rebekah Brooks reportedly has Rupert Murdoch’s “100% backing”. Is Murdoch risking his own reputation?

I don’t think many people would think Rupert Murdoch has a reputation for ethical journalism. If he ever did, it disappeared long ago. It could get in the way of his getting regulatory approval to take over full control of BSkyB.

What will this do to the reputation of News International? Will it affect the the company beyond its UK newspapers?

It’s difficult to see how. In Australia, we share with England a system of self-regulation of the media, which in my opinion is far preferable to statutory regulation, because it doesn’t represent the same threat to the principle of freedom of speech. I think it’s drawing a long bow to say it would have repercussions here. If his newspapers here were to republish that material or engage in similar activities themselves it would be a very different story.

The trouble with the system of self-regulation, here and in the UK, is that it is not fair dinkum. It has no real sanctions for wrongdoing, and low levels of public confidence.

What do you think of the scandal engulfing News of The World? Do you think phone hacking can ever be justified in the media? Leave your comments below.

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