Tuesday 16 August 2011

An overblown scandal

Phone-hacking: is it time to get tough on the press?, LSE, London, 6 July 2011

Superman views his alter-ego, the journalist Clark Kent, as being a reflection of his true self - bringing truth to the forefront and fighting for the ‘little man’. Nevertheless, as was demonstrated by the News of the World affair, modern day journalists tend not to want to fight the cause of justice – they instead simply want to (in the words of David Aaronovitch) ‘get the perfect story’.

A POLIS debate at the LSE chaired by Charlie Beckett (POLIS president) saw the likes of Charlotte Harris (lawyer), Martin Moore (head of the Media Standards Trust), Paul Staines (aka political blogger ‘Guido Fawkes’) and David Aaronovitch (Times journalist) make their views heard. The motion was ‘Is is time to get tough on the press?’ although this question was barely touched upon.

It begins with the basics, introduced by a seemingly nervous Martin Moore. He questioned the accountability and transparency of the press and argued this has all come about as a result of the new wave of technology, enabling us to retrieve information more easily. As a result, he asks: is there in fact any future for a ‘free’ press? The answer was a sweep of moans from the audience, but taking it further was Paul Staines who provocatively claimed ‘a bit of hypocrisy helps make the world go round better’.

Given the furore over the News of the World, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the most corrupt, immoral and most-likely-to-hack newspaper. Staines argued, however, that this is in fact statistically false. According to a 2006 ‘Blagging’ enquiry, the Mirror gains more ‘exclusive’ information via hacking than any other English newspaper.  In fact, in this enquiry, the News of the World didn’t receive second or third prize. The now dead newspaper was only fourth on the list. Despite these startling statistics, we were quickly assured by Staines that ‘one should never think hacking is bad for one’s career’. Although this was hardly a reassuring statement considering how he had just said he’d been thrown out of university for similar allegations.

The debate took a turn when David Aaronovitch argued that more regulation isn’t the solution to the problem, rather a lack of ethics amongst journalists. He went on to describe MPs as having been cowardly when they’re most needed and described the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) as ‘an organisation beyond uselessness’.

The conclusion to this debate was delivered by a man who wondered onto the stage wearing 1960s clothes, a beard and a bad temper. An uninvited hippy came onto stage and, with the audience’s encouragement, went on a rant (not dissimilar to that made by Gordon Brown regarding Murdoch’s ‘criminal media-nexus’ at the House of Commons) about the increasing apathy and lack of transparency in the press.

But haven’t people always ‘hacked’, ‘blagged’ and ‘gossiped’? If not with phones, then with a glass cup against a wall or by hiding in the bushes. In addition, it’s important to bear in mind that the most famous corruption stories have been found out by such ‘scandalous’ journalistic methods; an example being the Watergate case of 1972, which led to President Nixon’s resignation.

As Aaronovitch concluded, this has perhaps all been blown out of proportion. It is not one single incident which caused the intense public outcry, rather the build-up of countless saddening exposures of immoral hackings. And so the debate ended up where it started, questioning how, and to what extent, we should ‘get tough on the press’.

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