The News of the World saga reached an important milestone. The recent trial of Andrew Coulson (conviction) and Rebekah Brookes (acquittal) closed the initial stage. Nick Davies book (Hack Attack) reveals the wider challenges that remain. What we find from these events are three troubling questions about UK journalism.
Power creates fear and fear creates influence.
First, we have the problem of Mr. Davies reporting. The issue is not his writing, which is excellent, or his pursuit of the story, which is legendary. Instead, it is that he has to write in fear. He describes the fear that politicians have of Mr Murdoch and journalists have within his newspapers. Politicians have a natural fear or concern for public opinion, which journalists can exploit. What is different is how Murdoch moved beyond political accountability through the public interest to personal fear driven by private interest. Murdoch’s power created fear. The fear succeed but at a cost. The success created a corporate culture of cowards and bullies where roles were exchanged until you reach the top. Despite claims to work in the public interest, the journalists have remained publicly silent even as they spoke out privately. This raises the second point.
Fear is never overrated
Second, Mr Davies is not immune to the fear. He relies on anonymous sources. One can agree with Mr. Davies approach as a necessary measure given the Murdoch Empire’s power. However, Mr Davies has to use the same methods he is criticising. His sources are behind the scenes, off the record, and protected by the public interest. Even as he reveals Murdoch’s power to use personal information as leverage, he has to rely on similar though milder methods. The case raises questions about the shifting power of exploiting personal information. Is the power simply shifting to a different point, which brings us to the third problem?
Is Murdoch’s empire simply a mirror of UK public society?
The third problem is the most troubling. We have the problem of a society willing to accept such criminality in its midst without being aware of its corrosive effect on the public interest. The public bought and supplied these stories. They were willing to sell the personal information the NOTW used. Perhaps Murdoch’s terrible lesson is that his empire is simply a radicalized mirror of British society. Murdoch’s influence has been to encourage a public culture of cravenness and sycophancy. To do this, the NOTW used the public interest to shield a corrupt corporate culture and its journalists used it to justify criminal behaviour. In its aftermath, can any journalist claim to act in the public interest, when they failed to speak up in the public interest about criminal matters?
Who will pick up the public interest mantle?
When journalism becomes a criminal activity, the public interest is its mask. What sustains journalism’s independence and justifies its authority within society becomes something to control and not serve. The case has shown that the UK media has lost its claim to the public interest. Journalism has forfeited its protection. The question now is who will pick up the public interest mantle?