“Does the phone hacking scandal show that good journalism will be the first casualty of the digital revolution in the media?”
Any review of the gloomy headlines of 2011 would undoubtedly include phone hacking at News International, which shocked and shamed Britain. During a few chaotic weeks in July, the scandal erupted into a crisis for the press, police and politicians, exposing corruption, malpractice and illegalities. In almost immediate reactions to the scandal; the News of the World closed, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner resigned, several leading media figures were arrested, Rupert and James Murdoch appeared before a House of Commons Select Committee and the Leveson Inquiry was announced.
The fact that journalists could stoop so low as to hack the phones of murder victims and dead soldier’s families, undoubtedly damaged the public perception of the press. It begged the question posed by Jeremy Paxman in Newsnight, “what’s gone wrong in the culture of the media in this country?” Broadcaster Anne Diamond asserted we live in a press world where “values have been distorted by the worst journalists.” The same press world where according to Nick Davies, The Guardian journalist, who appeared in the same programme, “journalists are stabbing each other in the back, routinely breaking the law to sell newspapers.”
Any attempt to answer Paxman’s question must consider whether the digital revolution has helped create a breeding ground for bad journalism and made good journalism its first casualty. We are undeniably being swept along by a wave of technological advances which have given us iphones, ipads, laptops and made us witness to the rise of social networking sites, blogging and growth of online resources. This digital revolution has not only changed the face of journalism forever but given birth to an arch-rival, citizen journalism. As Richard Tait, Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University maintained in his lecture, “it seems anybody with a laptop or mobile phone can be a journalist.” In a world where, according to Ian Hargreaves In his book Journalism: Truth or Dare, “news is multimedia, global and ubiquitous,” news gathering is taking place in a highly competitive, overcrowded market place, with journalists racing to capture exclusive content.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, in his post-Hutton guidelines for journalists warns that, “inside many journalists there is a little demon prompting us to make the story as strong and interesting as possible, if not more so. We drop a few excitable adjectives around the place. We over-egg. We may even sex it up.” Regrettably, that demon has also prompted some reporters to practice the ‘dark arts of journalism,’ in a working environment where, according to former Mirror Journalist James Hipwell’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry last November, phone hacking was “a bog standard journalistic tool.”
Charles Reiss, London Evening Standard’s former Political Editoralso acknowledges that as story tellers in a marketplace there is the potential danger that reporters may be spurred on to “go that little bit too far and produce stories that depart from the truth.” He nevertheless has confidence that good journalism will only be a casualty of the digital age if basic principles of reporting are forgotten. As Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian tells us, good journalism is a “journalism of verification…it must be accurate…must be authentic, complying with the law, complying with the regulatory framework.” Rusbridger reminds us of an important point, namely “it is the rogue actions of, I hope, a few journalists (which) have landed the press as a whole with a series of inquiries.”
When Cardiff University hosted a debate ‘Hacked off,’ Rob Williams, online Sub-editor of The Independent agreed with Rusbridger believing a far more representative portrayal of the profession is one in which journalists are “working hard to get things right, operating in a professional and ethical manner day in day out.” In Jon Snow’s 2011 shown on Channel 4, Ian Hislop makes the important observation that journalists’ bad behaviour was exposed not by MP’s or the police but by other journalists.
The Leveson Inquiry has in essence been tasked with washing the professions dirty laundry in public. Whilst it has to date and undoubtedly, will continue to uncover uncomfortable truths about the way a number of journalists have behaved in the past, Rusbridger optimistically asks that, “as we enter this period of reflection and investigation of the worst of what journalism can do, let’s also keep in mind the best of what journalism can do.” To Rusbridger this is “a once-in-a-generation chance to celebrate great reporting.”
When The Sun editor Dominic Mohan appeared before Lord Justice Leveson in January he pleaded with him to create a “level playing field” between papers and the internet, blaming the totally un-regulated web for the falling circulation of newspapers. Lord Justice Leveson has already described the internet as “the elephant in the room” of his inquiry. With or without a playing field therefore, surely the best way for journalism to display its wares must be to capitalise on the very fact that it is a profession.
News online tends to have bias and as Peter Preston argues is geared towards a “specific audience.” To regurgitate such subjective reports would not be an example of good journalism. It is the job of the good journalist to take these accounts, add opinion, other facts and perspective to provide an end product which offers an objective, trusted view of events. Preston sees journalists as being imbued with a “sense of mission” and in a world of information over-load have a unique professional ability to sort out the “wheat from the chaff.” To quote Mark Brayne, former BBC Correspondent, good journalism matters because “it is the mirror through which people get the knowledge of where they are living.”
The digital revolution could therefore be seen not as a threat to good journalism but rather its saving grace, equipping reporters with the necessary tools to continue to ply their trade as trusted, responsible, impartial news gatherers in an ever-increasingly over-crowded media world. Six months after the phone hacking scandal rocked Britain January has seen the editors of the disgraced News of the World’s sister titles, voicing their support for a radical reform of press regulation to uphold press ethics but not through legislation. James Harding, editor of The Times has told Leveson “we don’t want to be in a position where the Prime Minister decides what goes in newspapers.” In contrast Alan Rusbridger has welcomed the prospect of a “regulator with teeth” and statutory under-pinning.
Lord Justice Leveson has summarised his challenge as finding a system that will work for press and public in the long-term. He has stressed that it will not be good enough to have an inquiry which will only lead to an “immediate improvement” in the behaviour of the press in the wake of one ethical scandal, only to be followed by “a gradual drift back” to old bad ways until the next ethical scandal. Leveson is therefore determined to establish a system “sufficiently robust to cope with the trouble so that in ten years time we don’t have to do the whole thing again.” If Lord Justice Leveson can achieve his laudable goal, good journalism will continue to thrive and the phone hacking scandal will make bad journalism the first casualty of the digital revolution in the media.