When journalism becomes criminal enterprise, the public interest is its mask

English: First issue of News of the World, Oct...

English: First issue of News of the World, October 1, 1843 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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2 Responses to When journalism becomes criminal enterprise, the public interest is its mask

  1. stevennott says:

    An excellent article – newspapers always say public interest is paramount but after recent exposure at Leveson and the Hacking trial, their hidden tactics and behind the scenes collusion being aired publicly, public interest is at the bottom of their priority list unless it benefits them.

    • Thanks for the comment and the kind words. The public interest is a powerful tool. The question now is who has the public interest mantle.
      I see a shift in the media as institutional press is replaced or challenged by niche providers like First Look Media, Pando.
      On Twitter one only need to note that former editors and even current editors and tabloid journalists and journalists in general rarely have large followings. This suggests, to me, that they relied heavily, if not exclusively, on the institutional power to protect themselves and promote their views. It is easier to take a caustic and damaging tone when you know you have a large and aggressive legal department to make your case all the way to the European Court.
      On Twitter such people are naked and the power of the individual, to develop their own following, to write their own counter narrative, and to challenge their views directly and repeatedly, changes the nature of journalism. What we find is that the public interest becomes democratic and while “monstering” may still exist, its power has changed. Although Twitter lynch mobs are horrific the institutional power of tabloids to target people has been limited and that has to be a good thing. Claire Short who was “monstered” for her campaign about the Sun’s Page 3 was too early. The campaign has had more success because of Twitter and social media as the public can create a counter campaign and the individuals cannot be targeted in the same way for “monstering” in the way that Claire Short was.
      Is everything changing? Yes and no. The surface remains relatively stable, but the deeper currents are swirling and changing and that will change the surface eventually. If you know where to look, you can see the currents.
      Thanks again for the comment and thank you for your work to bring phone hacking to light.

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