Why the NOTW controversy is deeper than one newspaper
News Corp has cut its losses by casting off NOTW, with skeptics claiming this is to clear the way for the acquisition of British Sky Broadcasting.
Whatever the reason, why wasn’t this widespread public outrage apparent sooner? Why has this phone hacking scandal taken so long to uncover? It first came to light in 2007, when two of NOTW’s staff were jailed for phone hacking. In 2009 the matter raised its ugly head and was again swept under the carpet. In hindsight it seems very few questions were asked by News Corp, the police or the public.
Now, as the flavour of the week, everyone is shocked, outraged and oddly surprised. Yes, advertisers started to pull out this week, but rather late in the day. It is easy to abandon a sinking ship; it takes guts to leave one with dry rot.
Certain NOTW employees were, without a doubt, systematically acting illegally. On top of the extensive phone hacking, allegations of deleting evidence, bribing police officers and hacking email accounts have come to light. The alarming revelation is that there are so many powerful people implicated in the scandal: journalists, policemen, politicians, the Press Complaints Commission and perhaps even in some way, NOTW readers.
It will be difficult to pinpoint who the culprits, or scapegoats, actually are, but it does seem that at every level many people have been too scared to stand up for what is right. As a society we seem to have forgotten the basic principles of ethics and responsibility, finding it easy to pass the buck and hard to take a stand.
My stand is this: for the multiple award winners at the British Press Awards it is not just the method that is reprehensible, it is the content. There is a public’s right to know and there is just plain gossip. NOTW are not the only popular print media manipulating people and information to sell, sell, sell. The Society of Professional Journalists have a fascinating code of ethics (available at www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp).
If this code were an exam, it would not be just NOTW that would be marked a fail. As convenient as it is to blame journalists for this, the relationship between the media and the public is a circular one. The media prescribes what the audience reads but the audience buys what they want to read.
Don’t forget that the dumped tabloid was Britain's best-selling newspaper and sadly, this can be only because their 2.6 annual readers liked the sensational content. Perhaps if you are fed on a diet of junk food, it is hard to appreciate Brussels sprouts, even if you know they are good for you. If you are the owner of a food chain, you make what is cheap and sells well. It is a sad, destructive cycle.
But I would argue there is hope. Perhaps society is outgrowing its insatiable appetite for gossip and sensationalism: thousands of people tweeted and Facebooked their call for a boycott for NOTW readers and advertisers that proved effective. I wonder if the same people will now seek more creditable, intelligent newspapers. I wonder if they will continue their protest if the paper is, as rumored, just replaced under a different title.
Now is the perfect time for change and that change has already begun. The media’s ethics and conduct are being reviewed. Prime minister David Cameron is making extraordinary admissions: to turning “a blind eye” and that “we have all been in this together.”
This could be a turning point, if only we grab hold of it. The qualities good journalists are called to have in their code of ethics are the same we should all aspire to: compassion, integrity and accountability, taking responsibility for our mistakes and speaking out against injustices around us. If we all aspired to these qualities, our print media may look very different.