Hacking scandal will bring seismic change to British media

Britain’s media industry is about to undergo seismic change. The implications of the latest revelations about journalists hacking telephone voicemail systems have clearly shown that the country’s famously feisty and fiercely independent news outlets are incapable of self regulation.

Senior executives of News International are under a harsh spotlight as it becomes ever more evident that phone hacking was part of the corporate culture, along with the payment of bribes to police officers in return for information about investigations.

Prime Minister David Cameron supports an independent inquiry amid calls for a commission to regulate the media, which would effectively end the farcical assumption that the industry is capable of defining its own boundaries.

Newsrooms can be tough places in which to shine, where the pressure to perform combined with reporters’ ambition and competition can be a toxic combination, and lead to some questionable methods for getting the big story, the fine quote, the front page byline.

Anecdotes about abrasive news editors, obnoxious reporters and the veracity of stories from the field are the stuff of Fleet Street legend, and journalists have long laughed behind their hands about made-up quotes, even made-up stories. While this is not confined to the British media, the papers here are well known for their colourful personalities and practices.

When multinational companies pull their advertising, the laughing quickly stops.

While it seemed confined to celebrities and politicians, this scandal provoked little more than tuts and eyerolls among a public that generally knows not to believe everything they read in the papers. But following news that the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler was hacked, days after she disappeared and while her family and the police were still searching for her, the public mood has turned to one of revulsion.

It does seem beyond comprehension that those responsible did not know that listening to and deleting  voicemails was morally, let alone legally, wrong. It is unbelievable that those running the News of the World at the time did not know what was going on as stories were published referring to the content of hacked voicemail messages.

Each hour seems to bring more news of how little integrity the newspaper had when it came to staying ahead of the savage British press pack. With implications that bereaved relatives of Afghanistan and Iraq war dead were also hacked, this episode moves into the realm of the profoundly sick.

A man whose son was killed in the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005 told the BBC that police involved in the phone hacking investigations had “found a file” that contained personal information, including an unlisted phone number.

After the attacks, Graham Foukes said he and other families “were in a very dark place, and we were using the phone frantically trying to get information, talking to families and friends, and talking very intimately about very personal issues. The thought that these guys may have been listening to that is horrendous.”

Mr Foukes said he would like to meet Rupert Murdoch, head of News International which owns the News of the World, “face to face, and have an in-depth discussion with him about responsibility and the power that he has, and how it should be used appropriately”.

Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, said she knew nothing of the phone hacking despite then being editor of the paper. She did, however, tell a parliamentary committee in 2003 that the paper paid police for information — which has been illegal in Britain for around a century.

Mrs Brooks artfully quoted former US President Harry Trueman that “the buck stops here” during her editorship while running a campaign to change the law on pedophiles. As calls grow louder for her to go, it remains to be seen just where the buck stops for Mr Murdoch.