The News Of The World phone-tapping scandal continues to escalate, presenting media proprietor Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp managers with what is the most damaging issue they have faced since The Sun’s infamous headline defaming the dead of Hillsborough.
The 91 victims of the paper’s phone-tapping activities have been so far identified, and there will be more. Many will be seeking compensation and redress for the illegal violation of their privacy. Some like actress Sienna Miller have already been offered large sums to settle out of court.
There is more at stake for News Corp than just money, however. The scandal has been bubbling away for years, kept in the public eye mainly by the reportage of The Guardian newspaper.
It has exploded into the headlines at just the moment when the UK government is considering approval for News Corp’s controversial bid to buy the remaining portion of BSkyB it doesn’t already own.
Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt insists that his decision will not be affected by the phone-tapping scandal, but it can’t but hang there as a background factor.
With its purchase of BSkyB, News Corp would become the UK’s most powerful media company, with revenues exceeding even the BBC. Should such a behemoth be allowed to form around an organisation so clearly negligent in its adherence to media law and journalistic ethics?
Even if it turns out that Murdoch himself, or his children or his senior managers were not personally aware of the phone-tapping activities going on at NOTW, what does it say about how their UK operation is run for such a breach to be permitted over such an extended period of time?
Hunt is correct to say that his decision on BSkyB must be based on competition criteria as set out in legislation, but the political and moral context created by the phone-tapping revelations create one hell of an elephant in the room.
The stakes are high for the UK government too. Prime Minister David Cameron appointed former NOTW editor Andy Coulson as his communications director, long after the phone-tapping story had become public. And whether or not Coulson had any involvement in or knowledge of the phone-tapping activities of NOTW journalists and their sources – he denies it – David Cameron’s judgement in appointing Coulson to the heart of the government’s communication operation is inevitably in question.
Coulson resigned his Downing Street post in January, acknowledging that the growing scandal made his position untenable. But one doesn’t need a PhD in political communication to feel that he should never have been appointed as the prime minister’s media advisor in the first place, given the potential for what has subsequently transpired.
Did Cameron not know the risks? If he did, didn’t he care? Whatever happens, however this scandal unfolds, the British prime minister looks naïve and careless. At worst, it could bring him down.
For the British media as a whole, the scandal sheds light on a practice commonly believed to be widespread in the newsrooms of many titles. Having mercilessly exposed and denounced the details of MPs’ expenses in 2009, scrutiny is now on the journalists and their methods. Legal or illegal? Justified in the public interest, or merely prurient?
Journalists are a fourth estate, and sometimes their role and function requires clandestine means of acquiring information. We understand that, as citizens in a democracy.
Sometimes, and particularly in the sphere of celebrity journalism, their methods may be legal, but leave a bad taste in the mouth, as when the bins of famous people (and the not-so-famous) are rummaged through for newsworthy items. We may raise an eyebrow at that, while recognising that celebrity brings with it that kind of exposure. Some celebrities, indeed, invite such attention as a means of keeping themselves in the news.
But breaking the law, systematically and without an obvious public interest defence, as appears to have happened at the NOTW, and possibly in other newsrooms too, puts the independence of the press at risk by making the call for stronger privacy laws harder to resist.
To avoid legislation which would constrain legitimate journalistic inquiry in the future, let’s see sincere contrition and firm punishment now for these abuses of media power.