Saturday, July 23, 2011

Murdoch Most Foul is merely the first.

If you live in Britain, you'll have found it hard to miss the stories about journalists working for News International hacking mobile phone voicemails and bribing police officers in order to obtain scoops. The focus has been fully on the Murdoch family, the titles they own and their employees but, logically, isn't it likely that other news organisations have been up to the same tricks?

The BBC programme Newsnight ran a story last night that claimed Trinity Mirror Group journalists were up to many of the same illegal activities in pursuit of stories and that Piers Morgan (for it is he) presided over a culture where such behaviour was rife and well-known.

Statistics from the office of the Information Commissioner also show that of the recorded offences where newspapers obtained personal information to which they weren't entitled, the Mirror were the worst culprits, followed closely by Associated Newspapers - publishers of the Daily Mail, with News International a long way behind. Even the holier-than-thou Guardian Media Group appears on the list, though for context, it should be pointed out that the Mirror was involved in around 16 times as many recorded incidents.

So why the focus on Murdoch and News International? Possibly because he has long been a bĂȘte
noire of the UK newspaper establishment, with his Antipodean roots and penchant for dumbing down and sexing up the newspaper titles he buys. There is also the issue of his influence on politicians that derives from the mass market appeal of the Sun and (formerly) the News of the World, wherein Murdoch can act as king-maker by swaying his readers' opinions to support the party that he wants to win.

Despite the enormity of the story, one organisation has been very quiet: the Press Complaints Commission - the self-regulatory body for the press. Could this be anything to do with the fact that the Mirror's Tina Weaver is a Commission member and Associated Newspapers' Paul Dacre is Chairman of the Editors' Code of Practice Committee? Does it make sense for the body which is supposed to reign in the excesses of the press to contain senior figures from the companies involved?

The PCC as a regulator is already a joke. Aside from rejecting complaints that are made by people who are not directly affected by the article about which they are complaining, the complaints that are upheld are accompanied by laughably lenient sanctions. Newspapers, when forced to print an apology or correction, will routinely bury it at the bottom of an inside page in as small a box as possible.

But even this is too much for some. Express Newspapers owned by Richard Desmond - another wholly unsuitable newspaper owner, has declined to pay their PCC subscriptions and so has, effectively, opted out of PCC control. So, unless they do something so serious as to involve the courts, the Daily and Sunday Express, the Daily Star and Star on Sunday are outside of regulatory control.

And even if the offended party wants to take a newspaper to court, they may be unable to afford it. In the past, lawyers acting on behalf of the newspapers have threatened plaintiffs by suggesting that the newspaper would seek punitively high costs, and may counter-sue for damages in the event of the defendant losing. Often, the threat is accompanied by a derisory offer of an out-of-court settlement conditional upon the defendant signing a gagging order. Such bully-boy tactics have seen the newspapers operate largely unchecked for many years.

But a free press is vital in any democracy, so the suggestions of some politicians to introduce censorship laws must be resisted at all costs. What is needed is the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press to be enshrined in law, but for it to be regulated by an independent apolitical body that has real power to apply appropriate and meaningful sanctions when illegal and/or unethical behaviour is proven.

The new body shouldn't concern itself with who owns the newspapers, however. Labour leader Ed Milliband recently called for the larger newspaper groups to be split up to reduce the power of a few owners. What he seems to have failed to realise is that increasing plurality of ownership also increases production costs, as the economies of scale open to larger media operations are removed when those operations are split up. This would lead to a fight against ever-decreasing margins and an even more rabid grab for circulation numbers - leading inevitably to more lurid and sensationalistic journalism, and even more pressure to deliver exclusives, raising further the temptation to step outside the law to get the story.

Now is the time for journalists to remember that with such great power comes great responsibility and that the public deserves better.