Our media disease affects more than Murdoch
The despicable revelations concerning the News of the World’s alleged systematic hacking of up to 4,000 people – abducted children, parents and families of murder victims, families of terrorism victims and the widows of fallen soldiers – have shaken the British media to its core and caused the extinction of Britain’s most read newspaper. Suggestions that elements within the Metropolitan Police were complicit in some of this activity and that certain officers accepted payments from News International proportions. And the timidity of most Parliamentarians in confronting these issues over the course of this long running scandal has outraged the public.
In short, some of Britain’s most important and authoritative institutions are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis.
In what is a rapidly moving series of events surrounding News International – arrests, inquiries, resignations, political allegations, and attempts to destroy electronic records – the central theme of this scandal risks becoming obscured.
Of course, questions remain unanswered by the Prime Minister regarding how much he knew about the depth of Andy Coulson’s involvement with regard to alleged corrupt practices involving the Metropolitan Police. In the words of Channel 4’s Gary Gibbons, David Cameron is “...too enmeshed for comfort...” in this scandal and the widespread political implications of these events are yet to play out.
But it’s shameful that it has taken this scandal to bring about the long overdue investigation upon media ethics and practices. The reality is that the behaviour of the British media (not just the printed press) has damaged the reputation of our country for a long time. In the process, it has debased our society. However, the desire of some media outlets, the public and some politicians to paint these issues as principally about Murdoch, Coulson, Brooks and News International - albeit understandable - risks distracting all of us from the wider issues.
These wider issues concern the ethics of the British media; its practices and attitudes and its disregard for the ordinary, usually powerless people it routinely abuses. Politicians and celebrities are not the same as ordinary members of the public caught up in news events and it is the sickening treatment of these people by the News of the World – but essentially by the media in general – that has so revolted the public.
The events of June 2nd 2010 – when 12 of my constituents were murdered by a gunman - brought these ethics and practices into sharp focus for me. Shattered families were immediately preyed upon, cheque book journalism infected every street corner, properties were trespassed, homes of victims and their families were surrounded by salivating hacks. A grieving community was exploited and the reporting of news as a public good quickly became a source of entertainment. In a parliamentary debate regarding the events, I deplored “...the media’s invented exclusives, its prurience and voyeurism, its mawkish brutality and its cold-blooded pursuit of profit at the expense of the families of those most affected.” Sentiments which are as relevant now as they were then.
On the 2nd of November that same year, I told the Home Affairs Select Committee of these practices before informing them of one of the worst examples of media invasion I have ever encountered.
“Do we want to be the kind of country where the son of a murder victim, on his first day back at school, is being hounded by the press? What kind of country is that? What kind of legislature allows that? What kind of people are we that we allow those things to go by and not raise a hand or an eyebrow about whether or not that's right or wrong? And it's fundamentally wrong. What happened in the midst of this tragedy was that news reporting and news reportage, very, very quickly, within a matter of hours, became entertainment. That can't be right and that must be addressed.”
I told the committee that the standards of the British media raised questions about what kind of country are we and what kind of country we want to be.
Ultimately, this is the heart of the matter. We want and need a free press and a free media, but nobody ever agreed to the wanton violation of the lives of innocent individuals for the profit and entertainment of others as the price of this freedom. News International and the News of the World have demonstrated the worst of the media’s most fetid characteristics, but they are not alone and our media’s disease is not confined to one newsgroup.
The British media has shown all the hallmarks of a repeat offender unable of rehabilitation. Scandal after scandal, reform is pledged yet never delivered. Enough is enough. Self-regulation does not and cannot work. We urgently need a strong, independent regulator free of political and proprietorial influence which regulates in a transparent, powerful way, legally constituted with the power to enforce effective legal sanctions.
Those of us who care about a free, effective, clean media – and who crave the benefits that this would bring to society - must not allow any Murdoch obsession to get in the way of reform. The party’s over, and British journalism will never be the same again.