The Gen Post is the weekly newsletter of the Global Editors Network. Published every Tuesday, it features a top level editor giving an in-depth analyis of the hottest trends in the world's leading newsrooms.
Aidan White (1/2):"The NoW scandal is a failure of self-regulation in the press"
Aidan White was the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists from 1987 until April 2011. He previously worked for several newspapers in the United Kingdom. He is a long-time campaigner for journalists' rights and is a former activist with the National Union of Journalists in Great Britain and Ireland. He is now managing consultant with the Global Editors Network where he leads the reflexion to define new ethical guidelines for journalists. He gave a long interview to the Gen Post. In the first part below, he analyses the implications and consequences of the News of the World scandal. In the second part to be published next week, he will launch the media accountability plan of the Global Editors Network.
Does the News of the World scandal come from a pure problem of privacy?
The scandal of phone hacking at the News of the World and the controversy that has engulfed News International and the wider global media owned by Rupert Murdoch goes much further than privacy rights. What has been exposed is a credibility crisis for media that concerns a culture of management that has compromised ethical journalism; a failure of self-regulation in the press; and profoundly unhealthy relations between media and two key sources of power – politics and policing.
The NoW scandal spread when it became obvious that the police – or some policemen – knew NoW journalists’ practices. How to avoid such connections in the future?
Journalists always work closely with the police, but that relationship has to be carefully monitored to avoid conflicts of interest on both sides. The News of the World scandal, which involved illegal payments to police officers and attempts to cover-up and own play the scale of phone hacking, was a result of corrupt personal relations between senior media executives and police officers. This can only be avoided by the strict implementation of transparency rules that ensure full disclosure of all contacts and internal rules both within media and police forces to prohibit contacts and relations the encourage conflicts of interest.
An editor-in-chief becoming one of the main adviser of a Prime Minister, is it unacceptable by principle? What was wrong in the case of Mr Coulson’s recruitment by Mr Cameron?
Relations between News International and the political community in Britain have been exposed as corrupt. There is little doubt that News International has exercised undue influence over political life. The close relationship between the Murdoch company and successive British governments is well documented and stretches back more than 30 years. The phone hacking scandal, which arose as the company sought political support to expand its media holdings in the UK through full acquisition of BSkyB, exposed how these close relations were untenable by the appointment of the former Editor of the News of the World to a senior position in Government.
In principle there is nothing against a senior journalist taking up a political post, but there must be rules in place to avoid potential conflicts of interest. It is not appropriate for editors to move from politically influential media into the heart of government if it damages the credibility of independent journalism. New forms of self-regulation, including fixing a period within which former editors are prohibited from taking up directly political roles after leaving senior editorial management may help.
In the Coulson case there was not enough rigorous examination of his role in the questions over phone hacking at the time of his appointment, particularly as he had resigned from the News of the World over this issue.
Was phone hacking a “system” at News of the World and do you consider what happened there can happen in other newsrooms in UK or in the rest of the world?
There is no doubt that the phone hacking and “blagging” (obtaining information under false pretences) were well known to the national newspaper community and not just at the News of the World. Just as the phone hacking was not the work of “one rogue reporter”, so the unethical practice of the News of the World newsroom was not restricted to “one rogue newspaper.”
Ferocious competition for circulation, for editorial scoops and for business advantage created a secretive and corrupt form of journalism which infected much of the tabloid newspaper industry. This is an environment which contaminates notions of mission in journalism destroys public confidence.
But it is not confined to Britain. There is much evidence in other parts of the world that pursuit of commercial advantage can and does lead to destruction of the ethical base of journalism.
The downfall of the News of the World provides an opportunity to restore a culture of ethical and independent journalism, but this will only be achieved through greater commitment to transparency and a new perspective of morality within journalism as a whole. This will need more investment in establishing principles of good practice inside media and more disclosure about the methods and standards which journalists apply in their work.
Is it the end of the yellow press? Is it possible to rule a tabloid without breaching privacy rules or being “border line”?
The “yellow press” by definition is driven not by notions of public duty or morality, but by the vigorous pursuit of sensational and prurient news. Respect for ethics, including the privacy rights of individuals, rarely figure in the minds of such media. Most journalists worthy of the name would welcome the demise of the yellow press, but few would tar all forms of tabloid journalism with this brush.
Tabloid journalism plays an important role in providing people and communities with information in digestible bite-sized chunks in a language and format that we can all understand. The tradition of campaigning tabloid journalism is rich in examples of high quality, ethical reporting, including respect for privacy.
All media rightly worry when too rigorous application of privacy rules may make it close to impossible for them to publish anything touching on the fundamental aspects of a person’s private life such as their family life, sexual behaviour, orientation or medical conditions even where they believe that publication is in the public interest.
But this legitimate argument has been dramatically undermined by the News of the World which has become a perfect illustration of how quickly reckless and intrusive journalism can damage public confidence, and not just in that newspaper, but in the news media at large.
Reporters, encouraged by circulation-hungry managers, were caught hacking into people’s private lives in the search for exclusive stories on the personal lives of the rich and famous.
While the public may have turned a blind eye to journalists stalking the publicity-seeking celebrities of show business or sport, the mood changed suddenly when it was revealed that in 2002 the News of the World hacked the telephone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler, giving her family false hope that their daughter was still alive. Family members of ordinary people killed by terrorist bombings may also have had their telephones hacked.
How do you foresee the ethical guidelines of the successor of News of the World?
The predatory culture of intrusion at the News of the World caused widespread revulsion and led to an unprecedented backlash against irresponsible media management and unethical journalism sparking a new and profound debate about regulation of the press. Any successor to the News of the World will have to define a new and clearly distinct form of accountable journalism.
Although the scale of telephone hacking and the unhealthy relationship between the Murdoch media and senior police officers, which had helped to keep the lid on the story for years, was itself exposed by some courageous journalism, particularly on the part of The Guardian, there is much to be done to restore confidence that the culture which brought the extinction of the News of the World is not still deeply embedded in journalism.
For the first time in a generation the British press finds itself at the heart of a crisis that centered on the unethical and illegal actions of journalists.
Public outrage is legitimate when the ethics of journalism are abandoned in pursuit of money and political influence, and when the press exercises power without responsibility, but it is no basis curtailing the freedom of the press.
Certainly, there is something to be said for limiting the power of media oligarchies – of which News Corporation is a prime example – but that needs to be done in the name of pluralism, freedom and respect for privacy.
The Murdoch case, disgraceful though it is, should not be used as an excuse to impose heavy media regulation which would inhibit the capacity of investigative journalism. In most European countries good journalism plays a critical role in scrutiny of people in power. But good journalism is not the same as journalism that makes government or politicians happy. Indeed, it is the opposite.
New commitments to internal codes of conduct and accountability will be essential in the coming period. The challenge will be to ensure that this revival of quality journalism is driven by effective and credible forms of self-regulation and does not lead to new forms of intrusive and legal regulation that could limit press freedom.
PS: Participate to the World Newsmedia Innovation Survey (in cooperation with GEN)
The World Newsmedia Network’s Innovation Study, in its third year as a global study, focuses on three areas: newsmedia company strategies for content and product innovation, revenue-making and training and development. The survey is available in 9 languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and Arabic. The 130+ page report will include more than 100 data sets, and will be published in November 2011. It will be given for free to survey takers. Click here to take the survey in your language.