Journalists have been getting it wrong since the Boer war (and before), but then, it could be blamed on the infancy of the profession. The curve of reportage started with sensationalist, opinionated drivel based on opinion and not fact. This then progressed into the true investigative masterfulness of the 60’s and 70’s with keystone work such as that of Watergate. But the turn of the millennia and the rising power of new media has seen the art shrivel back to a mere speck this former glory.
People who have studied the media, or have an active interest in it, will know that the debate about news values is not a new one. The public service model furiously protects independence, accountability, freedom of the press, accuracy and fairness. The market model of journalism however, believes that it is the consumer who should drive content which often allows for some of the aforementioned qualities to be dropped. Is there a level of universal standards within a journalists/editors/owners remit that should be adhered to world-wide or should news producers simply cater for their market? It could be said that newspapers are a special type of media, due to their very name encompassing the word ‘news’ – defined as a report of a recent ‘event’ usually defined as an occurrence with some importance. All of us can admit that we utilise certain forms of media such as films or music as a kind of escapism from the humdrum of day to day living. We all have our little guilty (or even proud) pleasures such as an unhealthy obsession with the media-savvy Lady Gaga for her revolutionary potential, or with Dr Who because one day maybe, just maybe. But news isn’t about escapism, it is about the things that really matter, whether you as a consumer care about them or not – if not go buy ‘OK!’ Magazine (or other titles, am certainly not one for brand endorsement).
The cuts occurring across all sectors are damaging, but the decreasing revenue from newspaper sales has led to a diminishing number of professional journalists. The number of journalists in the typical newsroom has at least halved in most cases more compared to even ten years ago, resulting in one writer being burdened with the workload of four or more; turning journalism into churnalism. Most content that is presented within the press is a re-jigged press release sourced from a major press agency such as Reuters or the Press Association, meaning that stories are no longer fleshed out, properly researched, or most importantly constructed via firsthand accounts and other sources by the person whose name reads on the by-line. This practice has become increasingly acceptable when in the heyday of reporting it certainly would not be. This is only one of many reasons why like politicians, journalists are losing their credibility. Journalism is being deskilled, newspapers increasingly dummed down, and as a consequence so too is the population. Or is it the other way round?
People became increasingly disengaged with politics due to the abuse of the system from its employees, and it disheartens me to recognise that the same is becoming of journalism. Reporting has been and should continue to be a staple of the democratic process, concerned with scrutinising and holding to account those that govern us. In the modern world this no longer simply includes those whom we elect, but the hundreds of multinational corporations that spoon-feed humanity with ‘suggestions’ as to what constitutes a good life. In the same way the developing world suffers to feed the upper echelons of the west as a result of its hunger for growth, true journalism is suffering to pander to the ‘needs’ of consumers caught in the thralls of commodity fetishism. Owners and editors are now more often concerned with how their advertisers will react to articles rather than their readers, and the news agenda is covertly changed accordingly, ergo; aspiring journalists who enter the trade are increasingly stifled to fit the capitalist agenda. Those who set the agenda are typically members of the upper classes, who are increasingly coerced by large companies to not investigate when something goes wrong to avoid a PR nightmare. There have been various cases of this including Coca Cola taking charge of local water supplies in India, Nestle promoting formula milk to African mothers who lack access to clean water, New Look buying in clothes from Asian sweat shops etc. etc. Today is the age of PR, and reporting has been sacrificed for the new age of consumerism, it has been alienated as has the population. Journalism has had its hour of glory, and now the likes of Murdoch and the events of the hacking scandal that have pushed it over the edge.
Ian Reeves, a lecturer at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent stated that:
“The danger is that the public’s justifiable anger over hacking ends up blinding them to the importance of a free and robust press” he also said that the damage inflicted on the industry as a whole will “strengthen further the invidious influence of the world of PR.”
The recent actions of the News of the World has brought into question the role of the media, how it is regulated and the type of relationship owners build with politicians. The hacking scandal itself has been growing for over a decade (if not longer), and as it has been systematically pointed out in the reporting’s of the scandal, is not limited to this one publication whether this can be grounded in evidence or not. The practices of bribery, hacking, blagging, tracking and bugging have been used across media for some time, hidden under the old excuse of ‘public interest’. After several extreme cases carried out by the NOTW however, such as the case of Milly Dowler and other cases involving police investigation, this excuse no longer washed with the public or politicians and morality prevailed, leading to the events which formed the headlines last month.
Murdoch and his empire have often been demonised by those of leftist political persuasion, but it is only now that this can be perfectly justified. Currently a legal case is being formulated out of the number of enquiries to be prompted as a result of the hacking scandal. Mr Cameron has promised that anyone found to have sanctioned wrongdoing should have no further role in running a media company in the UK, and will be barred from doing so – bye bye Murdoch, or so we should hope.
The newspaper sector of Murdoch’s business has ceased to be economically viable for some time now. This is not only due to the rise of new media but as many investors have pointed out this maybe due to the extensive nepotism and failing governance that exists at the company’s corporate level. This was shamefully displayed at the Select Committee for Culture Media and Sport which Rupert Murdoch, his son James Murdoch and Rebecca Brookes were all called before to answer questions in relation to hacking and the illegal activity carried out throughout the corporation on a regular basis. It was here that Murdoch Senior’s most uttered parlance was ‘nope’, and coming in close second ‘I wasn’t made aware’, in both cases… a complete and utter cop-out. The humble-pie incident was really of great insignificance in comparison to the lack of involvement Mr Murdoch demonstrated and his laughable incompetence. It did however; ensure some cracking headlines and a front page picture which grabbed the population’s attention and sadly added more clout to the story.
The committee hammered home a vital point, that even if Mr Murdoch was blissfully unaware of the legal proceedings being brought against several of his employees, as head of the company it is his responsibility to ensure that his employees are acting within the law and are not being pressurised to do otherwise by those who he devolves his power/responsibility to. Even if he was let down by those people, it is his responsibility to ensure that the upper stratums of his business are complied of trustworthy, competent and professional people. He denied this ultimate responsibility in front of the committee. Louise Mensch, MP for Corby and East put forth the most compelling question of the session asking Murdoch if he will implement a global review of his procedures regarding the editorial branches of his empire, to which he replied he would be happy to do so… let’s hope she checks up on that.
Murdoch is known for his love of print but his ignorance to those in charge of this sector of his company is astounding, and most certainly a reason for its demise. Many commentators have stated that the ‘buck stops’ with Brookes, which is complete and utter nonsense. The buck stops with Murdoch, full stop. A committee member described his distance as ‘collective amnesia or News Corps executives’, or as Murdoch himself pointed out, a fancy term for calling them liars. Mr Murdoch’s main defence was that the NOTW is only 1% of his company News International, and that his priorities lay elsewhere. I think the lesson to be learned here is that if one small root is severed from a mighty oak, leaves will start to drop, but if the rotting route is carefully removed, there may be something left to save. As Jon Gaunt pointed out on question time; “Murdoch got rid of the wrong red-top”.
Something else to be airred in the meeting was the way Murdoch is treated by our politicians. When questioned about why he always entered number 10 through the back door (no pun intended), he replied “I simply did as I was told”, sounding like a child rather than a man in his eighties. He stated he may have been asked to do so to avoid his employees camping out on the front door step, to evade the informal meetings (of which he and Mr Cameron have had 26 over the course of his premiership) being publicised in the press, a very covert operation but why? Politicians have seen Murdoch as a key part of election success for decades. His stranglehold over the political system is quite frankly frightening, and this latest saga may help begin to put such practices to an end. Murdoch’s secret power over our politicians was the subject of Dispatches of late. The programme described how prime ministers were ‘enthralled to him’ and ‘held to ransom by him’. The programme bluntly stated that Murdoch viewed politicians as commodities, and that through utilisation of his power over the population, he was in fact running Britain. Allan Rusbridger of The Guardian said:
“It is the unwritten law of the British constitution that as a politician you must get on with Murdoch”
Murdoch has always been a crucial part of the inner circle of British politics. John Prescott admitted to Channel Four that to fight against Murdoch would mean a defeat come election time. His iron grip was best demonstrated when he successfully pressured Blaire into pulling a u-turn on a new EU constitution by initiating a referendum, something Blaire has since admitted he really did not want to do. The anti-EU mogul then knew the power of his papers could persuade the British public that a new constitution would be detrimental to Britain, and he won.
Media is important to politics. It is a vital forum and platform to reach people from all spectrums of life. The type of relationship the two have however needs to be called into question. Politicians can no longer give Murdoch the ‘green light to pursue his business interests’ in exchange for his papers’ support. Like in 2003 when Blair removed the ban on non EU commercial broadcasting licence ownership, and in 2009 when Cameron announced that power would be removed from the independent regulatory body OFCOM and put back into central government, both moves that were coincidentally beneficial to News International. Newspapers should be independent democratic institutions that support a party or political figure because of their good work, and because they have the credence to lead and govern Britain and its ordinary citizens.
Will David Cameron stick to his promise regarding figures relating to this scandal? Doubtful. Murdoch’s political influence is imbedded in Britain. It is hard to believe that Mr Cameron will throw away his ties with the one of most important contact of his political career, to lose support both politically and financially in exchange for the moral high ground. No, the Conservatives are about conserving economic strength, not democratic principle. As Hugh Grant wonderfully put it:
“Cameron needs to decide whether he is going to jump out of bed with Murdoch… and become his own man… and stop being his little helper”
Cameron also has another shared goal in common with Mr Murdoch, which is to centralise regulation of the press and to stop independent regulation. Although the current system of regulation has its flaws, its saving grace is that the majority of the journalistic community have a high degree of integrity and respect for traditional legitimate journalistic practice. The reason the current system is failing is because bodies such as the PCC currently lack any teeth to police with. The main agenda within the news industry, and journalism as a profession, still is to tell the truth and to hold to account in the public interest. The means by which the truth is obtained has been brought into question by recent events, as has the extent to which information is in the public interest, but the agenda of most journalists is honest. If regulation is incorporated into politics, a whole swathe of other agendas will stop the press from carrying out the vital job of work it was created to do, which would be a travesty for this democracy.
The Select Committee also recognised that what is needed is a more international code of conduct from which journalists should work. In an age of globalisation and with international corporations spanning the earth, it is imperative that journalists worldwide and company-wide are working to the same degree of professionalism. To stop journalism turning into churnalism and to alter the culture that has emerged across all media in the face of new technological challenges. As Murdoch stated:
“Newspapers are here to change the law, not break it”
(This however doesn’t mean you can pressurise for change to benefit your own business interests Mr Murdoch, change should come from the people for the people, and newspapers are a platform for that.)
On the day of PMQs after the committee had sat, Cameron, as usual, said a few things that provoked debate. He made a point of discussing the BBC, stating that they have the largest income and the largest share of the news audience in the UK and suggested maybe this should be looked into too after Murdoch’s BSkyB bid was thwarted in the wake of the hacking scandal… but the BBC have a different remit to the likes of Murdoch. They have the right to become dominant because they don’t have to buy it. They are the pillar of the British media that demonstrate the most independence and most importantly the most varied, informative reporting of any other company due to their public service broadcasting remit. They are not in it for the money, which means they are free from the capitalist agenda that dictates most other media organisations news values, and the public see this, which is the sole reason for its popularity.
The thing that is most sickening regarding this whole affair, is how the public are used and abused for the gains of those at the top, whether it be politicians, media moguls, businesses or the like. The majority of points discussed in this article take the hypodermic syringe model of audience participation as golden. Murdoch himself, and the politicians he coerces, are so damned convinced that News Corporation can convince the nation to do anything. Although you may say, this has in several cases been proven, like drumming up support for the war in Iraq, it doesn’t make it right. Many people depend on the news as their main source of information, and if it is skewed with all sorts of hidden messages and provocations that is indoctrination. Enough said.
Now the population has become wise to the workings of market driven media, all journalism may be set to suffer as a result of the wrong doings of one organisation. True investigative journalists will find it harder to liaise with local police, citizens, MPs and other figures that they need to to legitimately gather the evidence to compile good news stories, meaning that the public would be shooting themselves in the foot for allowing one corporation to taint its view of an industry built to support the common man. Bob Satchwell the executive director of the Society of Editors has asked the public to recognise there are 20 national newspapers and 1300 local newspapers in Britain and to “not judge all reporters by the scandals of a few”. If British journalism is weakened by this, it is not Murdoch who will suffer, but the British public. The changing commercial landscape and the increasing amount of ‘professional management’ has seen PR rise to a new role. Some commentators have suggested that this in itself has lead to journalists scrambling to find new means of obtaining information as the world of PR has made traditional methods less affective. The bottom line is journalistic training is structured around a centre of ethical principles which no self respecting journalist would contravene, those that have are not worthy of the title and ARE the minority.
News reporting in particular is already becoming less and less popular with younger generations and scandals such as this give them reason to become disaffected with the industry. The profession may start to suffer from lack of new talent as a result of this, as young graduates will seek to become part of a growing vocation not one that is seen to be dying. The light out of the darkness of this tale is that it is journalists who brought the issue to light, who have scrutinised every part of the proceedings and informed the world about Murdoch and his downfalls. So it is important that we as citizens don’t give up on journalists yet, and support good practice by saying goodbye to Mr Murdoch by ensuring his role as Kingmaker in the UK is fulfilled by the governed.