Phone hacking – ethics and tabloid journalism

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By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

Rupert Murdoch’s positive contributions to the British press as well as the negative effects of his influence were discussed by a Frontline Club panel on phone hacking last night.

Although some of the panelists concluded that the positives might even outweigh them, the negatives are “awfully negative”, said chair Jon Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News.

Ever since the phone hacking scandal exploded earlier this month after the revelation that the News of the World hired an investigator to hack into murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone, Rupert Murdoch’s influence has been unanimously decried.

Much reflection on the value of a reportedly dying empire has followed.

Panellist David Banks, a former Daily Mirror editor who also spent 14 years working for News Corp, said:

He begat a whole generation of journalism that we may not approve of. He pushed boundaries. I can divorce Rupert Murdoch from his power base. I rather like the man.

Without Murdoch quality papers like the Times and the Sunday Times would not exist today, added panellist Toby Young, a journalist for the Spectator and Daily Telegraph Snow pointed out the role Murdoch played in promoting premiership football and bringing satellite TV to millions of homes.

However, Jane Martinson, women’s editor at the Guardian, who until recently was media editor, said she Murdoch should not be discussed in extremes:

Rupert Murdoch as a bogeyman has not been the case for some years. [But] I wouldn’t go as far as to say the man is a saviour.

After many years in thrall to the Murdoch empire politicians finally called both Rupert and his son James Murdoch to account last week. Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, said politicians felt able to speak against Murdoch only after the revelations about Milly Dowler emerged.

When we went with the Dowlers to see the party leaders. They were remarkable, dignified … You could see the leaders [more] emboldened than they were before. They believed it was wrong and they had the public behind them.

The panel also discussed what had created the culture that led to widespread illegal activity. David Banks said the disappearance of the old, grey-haired editor-in-chief with a pipe and a strong moral code had resulted in a more reckless culture:

It is no coincidence that the last four or five editors of the Sun have all come from the showbusiness route. They have been quite young. No ethical background. No sense of someone behind them saying, ‘you can’t do that’.

In response to the panel’s comments about tabloid newsroom culture, James Anslow, a fomer News of the World employee who was in the audience,said the phone hacking scandal had surprised him.

“The idea that this is a culture that has been infected is hyperbole. I know of no ‘don’t ask, don’t tell policy’,” he said.

The role of press regulation has come under much scrutiny as a result of the phone hacking revelations. However, there was concern about the future of newspaper journalism if statutory regulation moving towards statutory regulation would be detrimental to journalism, argued Toby Young:

If journalism becomes wholly professionalised it becomes much harder to speak truth to power. We are not going to have quite such an energetic, rambunctuous media.

But Martin Moore said rather than statutory regulation a more “concise privacy law and first ammendment-style defense” should be developed. Such a stronger public interest defense would embolden journalists and solve the problem of what do when private or sensitive information is published online.

Review by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi