The Reading Room

Hacking Hackers Hacked

With yesterday’s closure of the News of the World the consequence of Murdoch’s ruthless business reaction to the public outcry over how some of his journalists hacked phones and broke the law, a blatant attempt to try and stop brand toxicity infecting his bid for BSkyB ownership, we are all left wondering what shocking revelations will emerge next and how long the post mortem will drag on.

A whole raft of organisations and institutions are now implicated for failing to act since Glenn Mulcaire’s 11,000 pages of notes containing 4,000 names landed with a thump on a desk in Scotland Yard in 2006 – News International, the Metropolitan Police, the Press Complaints Commission, the Crown Prosecution Service, Number 10 and politicians of all parties, Ofcom, the list goes on. Lone voices like the Guardian’s Nick Davies and MP Tom Watson have finally succeeded in sounding a wakeup call about the shameful levels of journalistic lawbreaking pinpointed by the Information Commissioner’s Operation Motorman report, again dating back to 2006, and the dubious cosying up between media barons like Murdoch and the leaders of our political parties.

So now we have two more public inquiries to look forward to (who knows when they will finish and what kind of outcome they are likely to have) and eventually a decision on BSkyB by Jeremy Hunt Ofcom and OFT, once they’ve taken their own sweet time to muse over issues of “plurality” and “fit and proper”. Meanwhile the public are feeling pretty short-changed and even more jaded and disgusted about their mainstream media, politicians, law enforcement and plethora of watchdog bodies. They’d like to see some decisive action now by our politicians and regulators, rather than wait to see what happens in September or later about BSkyB and whenever Murdoch chooses to launch his Sun on Sunday.

Self-regulation and an impotent PCC clearly haven’t worked and journalists and broadcasters like Greg Dyke believe press freedom won’t be harmed by bringing newspapers in line with the levels of regulation that broadcast media have to adhere to. Commentators like Newsnight’s economics editor Paul Mason believe while viewers consider broadcast news largely natural and authentic, tabloid journalism, with its tropes of manufactured outrage and prurient sleaze-mongering, is these days viewed ironically by the Facebook generation “much as it watches Big Brother.”

Certainly yesterday’s final edition of the News of the World, where it showcased its proud history of front pages, had a depressing familiarity about its recent years as we viewed a series of samey stings and kiss ‘n’ tells that showed celebs John Leslie, Angus Deayton, Kerry Katona and Ricky Hatton snorting coke, while various royals, politicians and soccer stars misbehaved in one way or another.

Also lacking authenticity was the actual political clout of news organisations like those of Murdoch. Sure, the Sun’s famous lightbulb front page “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights” will have had a small influence on some wavering and uncertain voters but the idea that “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” is little more than Kelvin Mackenzie’s wishful fantasy. By the time the Sun switched to supporting Labour in 1997, they were just following popular opinion, rather than in any way shaping it ever again. While newspaper circulations fell and the internet and the blogosphere fragmented and diluted voices of influence, political leaders nonetheless bought into the myth of huge and insidious press influence. Murdoch and the like were hardly likely to come clean and admit otherwise while they felt it might lead to preferential treatment.

Maybe while we are waiting for our tarnished institutions to eventually do something positive and decisive to assuage current levels of public fury, the public in the meantime have the chance to make a real difference, as Alastair Campbell puts it today “if they channel the anger at recent events into an assessment of what kind of papers they read, whether they really want to live on a diet of celebrity, trivia, negativity and abuse.” Shocks like the events of the last week and the impact on so many institutions surrounding the News of the World closure only happen once in a generation. So it will be interesting to see if the public does examine its own past behaviour and appetites, then use its economic clout, not just via short-lived Facebook and Twitter lobbying campaigns to shame companies out of advertising with the News of the World, but to fundamentally exercise its buying power more widely to change the market for good. AW

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