Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Hacked off

Let me get the confessional out of the way: between August 1988 and the end of November 1992 I worked for Rupert Murdoch. Not directly, you understand (although I encountered him on a number of occasions including, bizarrely, standing next to me in a kitchenette making himself a cup of tea. Yes, I also thought that he had minions or offspring to do that for him).

During this time I was employed by the same organisation which publishes the News of the World. I have even worked for a bit as a writer for its sister title, The Sun. Today, though some might scoff at the notion, I still consider myself to be a journalist, even though my brand of the noble art manifests itself as a corporate PR bloke (I maintain that the two professions are sides of the same, thin coin).

On Monday this week, however, I came close to disassociating myself with the profession altogether after it was revealed that a private investigator working for the News of the World had hacked into the mobile phone of the abducted and murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and listened to - and even deleted - her voicemails.

After all the Dowler family went through during the trial of Milly's murderer, Levi Bellfield, when it felt like the Dowlers themselves were on trial, they have been confronted with the fact that while their daughter was missing and probably - by then - dead, someone working (we must assume) on behalf of a major British news organisation was illegally accessing her phone. In the pursuit of what, we can't begin to imagine.

What restored my faith in journalistic endeavour was the story being broken by The Guardian. Lest it be said that the dear old Grauniad has never been the greatest Murdoch fan; but in its good old-fashioned scoop discovering the new depth plumbed by the ever-more Faustian saga of the NoW's alleged use of phone hacking against public figures, the leftist paper sparked an unprecedented wave of justifiable fury against the Wapping tabloid.

British PM David Cameron has condemned the alleged hacking, and major advertisers like Ford are said to be considering their position regarding the newspaper. A loss of advertising revenue will hit the paper harder than any stinging political rebuke, but questions have been rightly asked about Cameron's political associations with the Murdoch empire.

Was it wise of the prime minister to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his head of communications, knowing that Coulson resigned from the paper when the original Royal phone hacking scandal came to light? Has Cameron shown the best political judgement in being close to Rebekah Brooks, now News International's chief executive, and editor of the NoW when the Dowler hacking allegedly occurred? Brooks' hierarchical culpability and, we must assume, inevitable knowledge of the use of mobile phone hacking puts her in an untenable position now, especially with Rupert Murdoch looking to take over BSkyB fully. News Corporation and its British subsidiary News International currently need a spotless corporate reputation for this purpose - you'd struggle to say that they do with the hacking scandal hanging over them.

Meanwhile, the story continues to unravel: were the phones of victims of the 7/7 bombings hacked by the NoW? And what about the phone of one of the parents of the girls murdered in Soham in 2002? Apparently there is a suspicion of a hack there.

All this suggests a new degree of British media sleaze, and a further stain on the reputation of journalism itself. Once again we enter the discussion as to what constitutes "public interest". It has long divided opinion, especially when it comes to what licence the media has to invade individuals' privacy. Catching footballers shagging nannies may be of questionable public interest - beyond public appetite for such titillating nonsense - but accessing someone's voicemail is no better than breaking into someone's home and rifling through their personal possessions. It carries no justifiable purpose.

Those of us who work in and around the media will often turn a blind eye to the excesses of the press. We have a certain tolerance for the moral ambiguity occasionally applied by the media, even when they trample over something or someone we might otherwise find awkward or uncomfortable in pursuit of some truth or other. But the still-unravelling saga of the News of the World's seemingly systematic use of phone hacking and - if true - the despicable attempt to access a dead teenager's voicemail, surpasses even questions of morality. Perhaps those found ultimately responsible - up and down the editorial chain of command - will have plenty of time to reflect on that from their jail cells.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Simon -- What they did was lower than low ... sorry to see the whole paper got shut down for it, though ... am sure not everyone there was involved in hacking cell phones.