Saturday, 16 July 2011

Hacking crisis reveals problems of an increasingly devalued trade

It was three years ago at an employment tribunal hearing in Stratford, east London that I first got a glimpse of the darker side of News International.
The tribunal was hearing the case of Matt Driscoll, a sports reporter on the News of the World, who had been dismissed finally by the company in 2007.
The process of getting rid of Driscoll though began two years previously, with warnings. Emails revealed that then NOW editor Andy Coulson wanted to “get shot” of him “as quickly and cheaply as possible.”
Driscoll got sick but was still subject to a barrage of phone calls emails and visits to his home insisting he see the company doctor, despite his own GP saying he must distance himself from the source of his stress.
Driscoll won the day with the tribunal declaring there had been “a consistent pattern of bullying behaviour” from senior NOW managers. He was awarded £792,736 in compensation for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.
The Driscoll case showed a glimpse of the atmosphere of fear that the newspaper could create amongst its own employees, let alone what it considered to be sources for news stories. It was an unhealthy culture that has only recently come to light.
The last editor of the NOW Colin Myler seems to have steadied things down a little at the paper, from the days of hacking, but few will be regretting the loss of a paper that was obsessed with scandal.
The demise of the News of the World and the wider debate now opening up on the media raises a number of questions. The concern must be that once again the broad brush approach will be taken that all journalists are bad, just as all MPs and bankers were suddenly tarnished as a result of the scandals that erupted in those sectors over recent years.
The truth is that proper investigative journalism has a vital role to play in any functioning democracy. It acts as a check on those holding power and exposes the ongoing injustices being perpetuated against the often weak and vulnerable. The true task of the journalist must be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
The problem has been that over recent years fewer and fewer media operations seem to be operating to that mantra. One of the recurring questions over the tabloids is how much better it would be if they turned their investigative skills on corrupt companies or abuses in government, rather than exposing which celebrity is sleeping with who.
The tabloids ofcourse would argue that the public don’t want that type of news, they seek salacious tittle tattle – it’s what sells papers. To a large degree this is true, it is no use the great British public suddenly becoming prurient about these matters when it is they who buy the NOW, Sun and Daily Mail in their millions.
The papers that do the more investigative work like the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and Independent sell in the 100,000s.
What is more even these “quality” papers have been drawn down market over recent years by what they have seen sells the tabloids. So they also devote increasing amounts of space to celebrity and less to real investigations.
There is a lot of truth in the claim that the public gets the press it deserves. Maybe the wrongdoing at the News International titles is reflective of a society driven by greed and an anything goes mentality. Rupert Murdoch afterall worked practically hand in hand with the government of Margaret Thatcher in selling the neo-liberal revolution that has created the society we have today. And it was Mrs Thatcher who helped Mr Murdoch smash the unions at Wapping.
One of the major reasons that the media is the way it is in the UK is due to the pattern of ownership. A very few large corporations and individuals own and dominate the media scene. So many of these owners go hand in glove with some of the corporations that should be being vigorously investigated by their papers. An incestuous relationship has built up. Editors may claim independence but the slavish way in which they follow the dictates of the owners is nowhere more clearly seen than in the Murdoch empire. Mr Murdoch decides which party his papers will support in a general election and they do. Equally, he is a Eurosceptic which is another view reflected in his papers.
What is needed is a root and branch examination of media ownership. There needs to be more diversity, allowing trust funded operations to proliferate. It is ironic that at a time of mass media communications by the likes of the web and social networking that ownership has actually concentrated. This needs to be broken down with the plurality of media being restored.
The values of journalism also need to be restored. It is ironic that with the internet explosion, the number of journalists producing papers has shrunk, becoming more desk bound. Many local papers due to “technology” are now produced by a handful of journalists.
The accountants who unfortunately control so many newspapers do not understand journalism and the need to build up sources and networks. For them, a body not tied to a desk, scanning websites is wasting time. This needs to change, good reliable relationships are crucial to being an effective journalist. It is unhealthy for journalism and society to reduce the journalist’s role to that of a glorified word processor, increasingly dependent on Public Relations industry for news.
All of these matters need to form part of an examination of the media industry. Ownership and what we should be looking for in a healthy democracy from journalism are crucial questions that need to be answered. Individuals need protection but any reform must not go too far by tying journalists hands to the extent that wrongdoing gets even more difficult to expose. It is crucial in looking at journalism that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water in seeking to clearly right the wrongs of the past

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