The announcement that the 168-year old British newspaper title News of the World will cease to exist after this Sunday represents a landmark moment in journalism.
The British public reacted with revulsion to revelations that journalists from the top-selling tabloid employed a private investigator to hack into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
The report by The Guardian is the latest twist in a long running investigation into phone hacking by the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper that has embroiled figures as diverse as actors, soccer players and even Prime Minister David Cameron’s former press chief, Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor.
Shortly before James Murdoch’s announcement that the paper is to close, The Conversation spoke with Queensland University of Technology journalism expert Brian McNair, formerly of Strathclyde University, about the possible impact of the phone hacking scandal for the News of the World and the wider Murdoch media empire.
Is the News of the World the only media outlet in Britain to engage in such tactics?
It is generally believed that a number of newspapers and media organisations have been engaged in this for a number of years. It is just the News of the World that has been caught out and exposed, but I don’t think they are the only offenders.
There is no proof or evidence of others having been involved in it, but the tone of the media commentary on the story going back several months has always been suggesting that there is more than one media group involved.
Is this phone hacking a purely UK tabloid practice or is it likely that other publications globally employ similar tactics? Could it be happening in Australia?
There is no evidence of that but there is no reason to think not. The British tabloid press market is world famous for its propensity to sleaze and scandal going right back to the 1980s.
The Conservative government of the 1980s almost got to the point of legislating after a number of high profile cases of tabloid journalism where reporters were breaking into hospital rooms where celebrities were critically ill and then trying to write up stories. There was a whole number of fairly damaging scandals at that time in the 80s.
The press tried to clean up its act. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was set up in response to that wave of scandals and although a number of people criticised the PCC for not being very effective and lacking legal teeth, I think it did have an impact in curbing some of the worst excesses of the tabloid press.
This is a particularly British phenomenon. The tabloid press culture there has that reputation for being particularly intrusive and particularly aggressive in relation to celebrities and so on. This latest wave of stories is part of that.
I wouldn’t dispute for a moment that it could happen elsewhere. Some of the American celebrity media are very intrusive but I’m not aware of it in any other country and I’m certainly not aware of it in Australia.
Is there political danger to Prime Minister David Cameron if it can be demonstrated his ex-press chief Andy Coulson was complicit in phone hacking during his time editing the News of the World?
I thought this when Andy Coulson had to resign. It was clearly a damage limitation exercise. You do have to wonder about the naivety of David Cameron in employing Coulson as his director of communications given the history of the News of the World.
I think that this still has the potential to damage David Cameron and the Conservative government who are well known to be very close to News International and have benefited from News International’s support at the election.
That said, the Coulson story played out months ago and he resigned months ago and it didn’t appear to get legs as a story and accumulate and really damage the Prime Minister. That is not to say it couldn’t resurface with this latest twist, particularly the tapping of Milly Dowler and [the families] of the Soham girls.
It is politically dangerous for News International at the moment. They want to buy out the remaining stake in BSkyB which is still not a done deal. They generally want a favourable political climate in the UK to manage the business in general terms. Anything which damages their reputation in this way is obviously not welcome and I’m sure Rupert Murdoch is not particularly happy with the story.
It has the potential to do damage to News International’s long term interests.