Phone hacking scandal will not dampen public appetite

By Angus Bromhead

It is a turbulent and uncertain period for the British media. The now disbanded News of the World admitted to widespread and indiscriminate phone hacking, and it has emerged that those exploited were not only celebrities and politicians but also the families of murder victims and soldiers.

The legal ramifications are yet to be felt. Several news publications reputations have been tarnished; allegations challenge David Cameron’s credibility and have also put a stop Britain’s largest ever media takeover.

Following a rare moment of cross-party agreement in favour of a withdrawal of the News Corporations’ bid for the remainder of BSkyBthe Murdoch run media multinational has announced in a dramatic ‘volte-face’  that it wishes to abandon its offer.  The fact that such a large and openly ambitious news organisation, intent on UK growth, has retracted its offer so rapidly illustrates that this scandal is by no means over and its true extent is yet to be revealed. What are the wider implications of this for the press and Cameron’s government?

Originally dismissed as the actions of a small number of rogue journalists, chief of whom was the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire; phone hacking is now believed to have been carried out on an large scale and without remorse. For a media which is infamously cut-throat, shady and competitive, even the hacking scandal plumbs new lows.

A full criminal enquiry is essential. The manner in which private information was gathered is inexcusable and journalists’ ethics need to be questioned. Furthermore, a distinction ought to be made between what is in the public interest and what may be interesting to the public. All too often the affairs of those in the media spotlight might be fascinating, we are all guilty as charged, but their private lives are not in the public interest.

The politicians themselves are not without blame. Successive Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders from all parties have courted the British tabloids to their own ends, believing newspaper support essential to popularity. Labour’s Alastair Campbell and the Tories’ Andy Coulson both came from the Daily Mirror and News of the World, respectively. Blair, Brown and Cameron did not choose them just for their PR acumen but also their connections in Fleet Street.

With his former communications director now in police custody pending phone hacking allegations, Cameron realised his error in judgement and has been quick to criticise the press to save face. Social ties with Rebekah Brookes, the Murdochs and Coulson may, if not managed correctly, irreparably damage his personal credibility and popular appeal. The scandal has led to a deeper question about the power of print. The long established belief that newspapers like The Sun hold the keys to Westminster is in doubt. Newspapers, it seems, may just follow public opinion, not fashion it.

Does this mark a seismic shift in the role of the British media? Certainly The News Corp / BSkyB deal which had seemed inevitable has now been shelved, possibly permanently. Politicians will be more outspoken and braver in the face of the media. The public’s anger is unprecedented and they will view the media with a greater degree of cynicism and ask tougher questions of the media and politicians alike.

In a speech at the Institute of Government this morning, Nick Clegg outlined a trinity of media values: freedom, accountability and plurality. He argued for a press which is bound by fair rules, decent values and supported a full public enquiry into phone hacking.

Those implicit in the scandal have acted illegally and need to be held accountable. Both the media and politicians need to use this opportunity to push for greater transparency and look to re-engage with the public. The media, in particular newspapers, have a vital role in informing the public and providing a fair and justified analysis and opinion of events.

Despite this, I doubt that this scandal will do much to suppress the British public’s insatiable appetite for scandalous screaming headlines. There will always be a fuzzy grey line between what is interesting to the public and what is in the public’s interest.

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