London: In the cut and thrust of British
tabloid journalism, the fact that `News of the World`
illegally accessed mobile phones to ferret out information to
be used in sensational stories is not exactly breaking news.
What really `changed the world last week` - as Labour
leader Ed Miliband put it today - was the fact that the
targets of phone hacking were no longer only celebrities, but
also victims of crime, and terrorism (July 7 London bombing)
and kin of soldiers dead in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As long as the targets were celebrities, the cosy but
unhealthy relationship between press, politics and the police
in British public life was undisturbed.
So was the practice of `chequebook journalism` - the
practice of paying for information, interviews or exclusive
access - in an intensely competitive and profit-driven
environment. This practice involved hiring private
investigators for information.
But public revulsion welled up and everything hit the
ceiling when it was revealed that the targets included Milly
Dowler, a murdered teenager whose case was widely covered, and
family members of dead soldiers.
Until then, many tabloids and their journalists
indulged in the same news-gathering practices that brought
down the `News of the World` and seriously dented the
influence and shares of Rupert Murdoch`s media empire.
Mike Jempson, director of media ethics organisation
MediaWise (RPT MediaWise), told PTI: "Hacking into people`s
mobile phones is only the latest in a long line of illicit
activities by journalists seeking salacious headlines and
prurient stories. The behaviour of journalists and executives
at the News of the World is not the whole story".
He added: "As long ago as 2006 the then Information
Commissioner revealed that over 300 journalists from 32
publications had obtained over 3,000 items of personal
information by illegal means from just one private
investigator. It`s time newspaper editors came clean about any
underhand methods they have used in the past".
Stuart Allan, professor of journalism at Bournemouth
University, said: "This is a sad day for British journalism.
As we sift through the smouldering ruins of a once-proud
newspaper, however, we should seize the opportunity to think
anew about how to improve the quality of our press".
He added: "The News of the World was at its best when
it championed the interests of ordinary people in all aspects
of public life, engaging with pressing issues of social
relevance, rather than being obsessed with the whirl of
celebrity infotainment. British citizens deserve better. It is
time the Rupert Murdochs of this world recognised this simple
Experts have described the practice of privileging
profits to social responsibility as `Murdochisation`, after
Murdoch introduced new market-oriented measures to drive
profits through dumbing down news content.
Granville Williams, a senior British journalist and
academic, was the first to introduce the term Murdochisation
and called it an "ugly sounding word to describe an ugly
The word emerged in the 1990s to describe the use and
abuse of media power by Murdoch`s company. The two key
elements of this phenomenon, he says, are: "the use of
predatory pricing to weaken and eliminate other newspaper
titles; and the subordination of freedom of expression to the
higher priority of commercial expansion".
Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who is credited
with doggedly exposing the illegal news gathering practices,
details the modus operandi of private investigators hired by
newspapers (tabloid and broadsheet) in his best-selling book
on falsehood, distortion and propaganda in journalism, `Flat
In a chapter titled `The Dark Arts`, Davies writes:
"The truth is that what was once the occasional indulgence of
a few shifty crime correspondents has become the regular habit
of most news organisations".
He adds: "The hypocrisy is wonderful to behold. These
organisations exist to tell the truth and yet routinely they
lie about themselves...If falsehood and distortion are now the
routine products of the corporate news factory, corruption is
its most dangerous by-product".
The phone-hacking row also brought into focus the "too
cosy" relationship, as Miliband put it, between politicians
and newspaper owners such as Murdoch. He admitted that it was
wrong not to speak up against the illegal news-gathering
practices of such organisations while seeking their support.
Each of the last three prime ministers, Tony Blair,
Gordon Brown and David Cameron, have courted Murdoch, but the
phone hacking controversy has the potential of reducing - if
not eliminating - the dependence of politicians on media
As Miliband said, this did not mean that politicians
will stop speaking to newspaper owners or versa, but that
politicians will increasingly talk about it when the news
media go wrong on the basics of journalism.
According to Jempson, "Crocodile tears from the
Murdoch camp, from Downing Street and from the leader of the
opposition will assuage none of the public`s concerns about
the state of UK journalism and the unhealthy relationship
between the press, politicians and the police".
He added: "We need root and branch reform of the
regulatory system for the print, broadcasting and online
media....what a pity the Prime Minister did not announce the
ending of the lobby system, which enables senior politicians
and their advisors to set the agenda through anonymous tip
offs to journalists".
The closure of the `News of the World`, Jempson said,
was a classic `crisis management` move ? act promptly, assure
customers that things will be put right, then re-launch with a
new brand image when the dust has settled.