A Week In Politics – News of The World Scandal

By John Spence

This is the last ‘A Week in Politics’ for three weeks as your humble columnist soon departs for the delights of North Yorkshire, a friend’s wedding, and some London-based partying with old university chums from parts foreign. However, it’s been a doozy of a week to finish on, hasn’t it?

It would be remiss not to comment upon the developments surrounding phone hacking and the News of The World but, given the welter of coverage the story has received elsewhere, and the undoubted coverage it will receive from other authors here, I’ll confine myself to my own opinions on the matter rather than performing a more historical analysis.

One of the most tried and trusted methods of snuffing out an oil well fire is to set off an explosion next to it. The explosion temporarily removes oxygen from the fire, causing it to cease. News International, perhaps even the whole of News Corp itself, was ablaze this week. The unexpected and rapid sacrifice of the News of the World was the explosion that Murdochs senior and junior, as well as Rebekah Brooks, would have hoped has snuffed out the bonfire of dear old Rupert’s ambitions towards BSkyB and the wider discrediting of his other operations.

Thankfully, most people have seen the manoeuvre for what it is – a firebreak; an attempt to seal off the News of the Screws lest the contagion of long overdue scrutiny be contracted by other Murdoch media.

In no way should this act dissuade the relevant authorities from instigating a full and wide ranging judge-led inquiry of the affair, and the response has been encouraging.  Nor should any inquiry be confined to News International; all media outlets should be examined for their use of private investigators and phone hacking and other dubious practices.

Those found guilty of breaking the law should be punished to the maximum extent of the law. Those found guilty of sanctioning law-breaking acts, whether by direct commission, or by omission of proper stewardship, should also be punished.

As the ultimate goal of these actions was to make money, heavy fines should be imposed – not only on ‘corporate personalities’ but also on the key individuals involved. There needs to be maximum accountability and maximum transparency; guilty executives should not be able to hide behind the corporate body; guilty police officers should not be able to take the usual way out and retire; guilty journalists should be made pariahs within their own profession.

But there should be more. We have witnessed one of those rare occasions where political and public sensibilities are almost perfectly matched, and the opportunity for popular reform of how the media operates should not be lost.

Such is the grotesque culture within some newsrooms, and such is the narrow concentration of media power in the UK that nothing less than a media equivalent of economic shock therapy is necessary to remedy the situation our media is in.

The Press Complaints Commission should be abolished for the simple reason that self-regulation is like self-flagellation – one would only do it reluctantly and without the proper force for it to be effective. A replacement board of scrutiny should be established, along the lines of the US media analysis organisation Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. It should include cross-body representation with academics, trade unions, representatives from political parties and lay people to ensure that our media aims for the highest standards of journalistic integrity, not the lowest common denominator of money chasing trash.

There is a need also to look at plurality of ownership – one prescription I’d suggest would be for owners to be made to choose between holding interests in television and a channel’s web content or print and a paper’s web content. Having a stake in both, running from full ownership down to a minority stakeholding, should be prohibited in order to free up our mainstream media landscape to, if not a wider range of voices, because of the costs involved, then certainly a less concentrated number of voices.

Further, in the reporting of politics and policy, a simple piece of regulation should be introduced to the print media – for every column inch given to one side of a political argument, equal space should be given to all other sides of an argument. All arguments should be presented together with equal prominence – it is a regulation that exists in the broadcast media, therefore it is one that should exist in print also. Those arguments should be based on interpretations of verifiable information, whose provenance should also be identified – no more think tanks passing themselves off as non-partisan when they are anything but.  The polarisation of our press in the current age is a contributor to the poisonous atmosphere surrounding our politics, not a palliative to it.

Finally the ‘fit and proper person’ test in media ownership should be just that – a stringent test of suitability not solely based on wealth or global reach. The content and production values of other media outlets owned by a candidate, whether here or abroad, should be scrutinised.

Taking the case at hand, can we really say that Rupert Murdoch is a fit and proper person to own such a huge proportion of our media when his key TV ‘news’ asset in the US, Fox News, consistently misinforms its viewers?  Then there are the underhand and illegal information gathering techniques used by the NOTW over here. The buck does not and should not stop with Andy Coulson, no matter how much events are engineered to try and make it so.

The two key objectives going forwards should be these: 1) to improve the overall political and social knowledge of those who read, watch and take in the media and 2) to reduce the unedifying spectacle of politicians pandering to one element of the media or another – the aforementioned regulation will ensure they’ll get a fair hearing without having to offer quids pro quo of whatever kind.

I don’t claim that these proposals are a panacea; there’s no such thing, and there are almost as many problems giving all sides equal media attention as there is through partisanship. Nor do I claim that the proposals above are an especially exhaustive list of reforms. That said; reform is necessary, not just in structural issues but also in the objectives and morality of our media.  Self-regulation has failed in a climate where the ‘dead tree press’ are fighting to survive.  It will not do to allow the parliamentary summer recess to arrive and allow focus or indignation to diminish and for a reforming mood to evaporate.

But if the media is going to adjust, audiences need to adjust too.  While the argument that the media solely operates to the whims of audiences is facile, in all these revelations at least a portion of the blame lies with readers – and readers of all backgrounds too. After all, despite its status as a ‘low class’ tabloid, 36% of the NOTW’s readership were ABC1s – so not the supposedly ‘bovine chavs’ associated with the paper.

All of us need to ask ourselves:  “What do I really need to know about a celebrity’s private life?  How much do I really need to know about the private grief of war widows, or about the panic of the parents of a missing child?”  Until we drag ourselves out the gutter and raise our own standards, it’s unlikely the media will do the same.

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