Phone hacking, journalism ethics and the digital revolution

This article was originally written in answer to the question below for an assignment at university in January 2012.

Does the phone hacking scandal show that good journalism will be the first casualty of the digital revolution in the media?

Journalism is dying, or that’s what many people would have you believe; the internet means that people will never pay for news again, and the phone hacking scandal is the nail in the coffin for the trust of journalists.

In a 2011 IPSOS MORI poll only 19% of people said that journalists could be trusted to tell the truth. This is not a new thing; in 1983 the percentage was the same. TV news readers fair better however, with 63% of the poll respondents saying they can be trusted to tell the truth, more, in fact, than the ordinary person in the street.

Michael Jermey, ITV’s Director of News, Current Affairs and Sport, said he thinks this is justified. The regulatory framework for broadcasting is different to print journalism, and UK broadcasters are expected to be politically impartial in their news output. Ofcom’s code requires commercial broadcasters, “To ensure that news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.” The BBC’s editorial guidelines are similar.

Broadcasters are on limited  airtime however, and as summed up on the News Bias explored blog: “There is a tendency to try to fit news into small sound-bytes in television media, which can lead to omission of information, the limiting of debate, and a lack of context.” People often look elsewhere for analysis and to find out about things that matter to them specifically. After all, as Jermey has said, news is consumed as part of the evening’s entertainment on channels largely going for a mass reach.

In order for journalists to be more trusted they need to connect with the outlook of their audiences. Ian Hargreaves, former editor of New Statesman and The Independent, said in his book Journalism: Truth or Dare? that, “Non-diverse journalism cannot, by definition, achieve trust across the whole range of a public which is itself so diverse in terms of economic circumstance, class, ethnicity, gender, region, and in many other ways.”

Caledonian Mercury editor, Stewart Kirkpatrick, said at a recent Cardiff conference The Future of the Press in Wales, that he sees the future of journalism as one where the journalists are more connected to their audiences through understanding and finance, with audiences funding them directly.

Nicholas Brett, Deputy Managing Director at BBC Magazines, sees this connection to the audience as vital, and has said that to have an active relationship with an audience you need to choose the medium they will respond to instead of just ‘pushing the information out there’.

The internet is where this is done best. Verification can be a problem in the vast amount of information, but journalists face this to some degree in every medium. As Andrew Marr said in his book My Trade the internet has made it harder to lie in journalism, this is partly due to the speed at which mistakes can be highlighted.

The turning point in the hacking scandal, for the public and the media, came with the revelations about the hacking of missing girl Milly Dowler’s phone. The attitude up until then seemed to be as summed up in the comedy-drama Hacks on Channel 4, when the character Kate Loy who seemed to be based on Rebekah Brooks, said “They’re celebs – anyone with a publicist has got it coming.”

Ethical problems in the media are not a new thing, whether it be scaremongering, discriminatory and untrue headlines, the death of David Kelly or even the death of Princess Diana in 1997; something Ian Hargreaves has celled a ‘defining moment’ in British journalism as Diana’s car, which crashed, was being chased by photographers.

At the Leveson Inquiry, set up to investigate the role of the press and police in the phone hacking scandal, Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers said “Ethical – I don’t know what the word means…We do not talk about ethics or morals because it’s a very fine line and everybody is different.” Ethics are tricky ground but they need to be talked about.

Charles Reiss, former political editor of the Evening Standard, has said that journalists need to be more reliable and seen to be. George Orwell’s 1946 essay, The Prevention of Literature said, “What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.”

The Leveson Inquiry will be making recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance but there seems to be little consensus on what this should be. At Hacked Off: Reform, Regulation Democracy and the Press hosted by the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform at Cardiff University, Rob Williams from The Independent said the scandal should not be used to limit the freedom of the press. But, after giving evidence at the inquiry, Ian Hargreaves said he believes Leveson is aware of these fears and is personally anxious that he won’t be seen as curtailing press freedom.

The press currently has a system of ‘self regulation’ administered by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which is meant to be independent. Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian, sees continued self regulation as the only option as it is flexible. The public interest is “a common sense, malleable thing,” he said and thinks trying to interpret a statute won’t work for such a fluid concept.

In a January 2012 leader, The Times said, “The regulator of the press needs to have the confidence of the public. And this simply does not exist at the moment.” They proposed a move to more independent regulation, pointing out that “journalists cannot go on marking their own homework”, and that, if state regulation were to happen, many people publishing on the internet would come outside it.

At Hacked Off, Martin Shipton, head of the NUJ for Media Wales, said he thought it was significant that News International doesn’t recognise the union, which has its own clear code of conduct: Journalists there were operating in a “moral vacuum”.

However, Ian Hargreaves pointed out in Truth or Dare? that journalists and editors are individuals, wherever they operate: “Journalists are part of the societies in which they work. They acquire, within those societies, a sense of right and wrong: they have, thank goodness, a moral compass learnt outside journalism.” This was echoed by Ian Hislop in his recent evidence to Leveson.

We shouldn’t use the digital revolution as a distraction from tackling problems with ethics present in journalism for a long time before the hacking scandal.

Opportunities presented by the internet are described by Ian Hargreaves in Truth or Dare? as a challenge to develop a way of reporting, “which feels fresh, startling, and memorable in the way that it did when newspaper publishers first understood how to use headlines, typography, and layout to make navigation of a newspaper more rewarding, and pictures to make the experience more arresting.”

But, as the hacking scandal shows, alongside this freedom journalists should be aware of ethics and of their audience, with codes like those from Ofcom, the PCC and the NUJ acting as a guide.

A journalist’s job is to connect people to new information about things that effect their lives, as well as the wider world around them, so any regulation needs to reflect that journalism is varied and may sometimes cause trouble.

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