NewsLite Culture & Breakdown of Trust: News of the World
Make no mistake about it; the News of the World saga carries implications for much more than the world of journalistic practice and culture.
The entire sorry episode started with fresh allegations about phone hacking and payments to police officers. It ended late this week with the announcement that News of the World will publish its final edition tomorrow.
The story flags a number of questions that have already received wide coverage in the media, domestically and abroad.
Have politicians enjoyed too cosy a relationship with leading news organisations? Have police personnel routinely received payments for information given to journalists? Did British police effectively sweep earlier allegations about phone hacking under the carpet, rather than running a thorough investigation?
There are, however, two important aspects to this story that have received little or no comment in the mainstream press and media.
The first involves the culture surrounding journalism in the UK and its standards of practice for news gathering.
Specifically, are the practices associated with gathering celebrity gossip – what I call, newslite – becoming part of the mainstream news culture?
Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator hired by News of the World, apparently had 4,000 names and personal phone numbers in his records, which were seized by police. These included the ex-directory phone details for politicians, sports administrators and celebrities.
The obvious question is how he managed to lay his hands on this sensitive, private information.
Perhaps less obvious is the question of whether an endemic culture of illegal data-trading is emerging within mainstream news houses generally. Are individuals within telecom companies regularly colluding with journalists to provide sensitive, personal information?
In the world of marketing, the practice of data-mining already allows advertising companies to build up lifestyle logs for potential consumers. It uses information drawn from maps of personal mobile phone usage and material people have entered into social networking sites.
In some instances, deep packet encryption software is also used on a commercial level to extract keywords from bulk email traffic. This data is fed to marketers who use it to draw up profiles for potential ad-targets.
Some employers and education facilities are now using data-mining techniques to help them identify their most suitable job or course applicants.
All of this is often done without the knowledge or consent of consumers whose data is being used. In law, this type of practice is something of a grey area as privacy regulation struggles to keep pace with rapid changes in potentially invasive technologies.
Even more importantly, though, the phone hacking scandal raises questions about the relationship between newslite – the type of news normally associated with celebrity culture – and what used to be called ‘hard news’.
The so-called red-top papers, of which News of the World was Britain’s best-seller, have fed on celebrity gossip for decades. Their stock in trade has been the publication of exposes alleging bad behaviour among celebrities and other public figures.
Some of their sales success might be attributed to a strong desire among their readers to hold highly-paid public figures to account. More likely, though, it is down to a rapacious appetite for gossip.
Though it did from time to time introduce stories with important implications for the public interest, News of the World was probably always less about real news than entertainment.
But in this age of celebrity obsession, multi-media news platforms and competition with social media, is news generally moving in that same direction?
Heads of news organisations will huff and puff about their role as public educators, but are news organisations gradually becoming more purveyors of popular entertainment than hard news?
Media producers are already under great pressure to fill 24/7 news schedules, both online and on TV and radio. The press are affected, too, particularly as more and more publishers release parallel editions for iPad and other tablet platforms, so that written news is presented alongside movies and music.
Video and music always change the presentation of news. The mere presence of a camera can turn reportage into a show-biz product, if it is not used with care.
Reporting on hard news isn’t made any easier by the growing public appetite for ‘direct news’ via Twitter and Facebook, either.
Yes, these platforms are useful in situations where there are no journalists on hand to report developments – as in the Arab spring uprisings. But it’s very difficult to present a nuanced news story in sound-bytes of less than 120 characters on Twitter.
Besides, a recent American study found that whilst 39% of young people get their news from social media, more than 90% of that news features material provided by professional journalists working for old-school news outlets.
It seems inevitable that as social news media grow in their influence, some aspects of celebrity-focused tabloid-style journalism will become more the norm than the exception in news rooms.
If our view of what constitutes news shifts too far in the direction of newslite, we may find that using data-mining and other under-the-radar methods become normal practice in even the more scrupulous organisations.
We the public seem to have an unwritten contract with newspapers and the electronic media. We may tolerate certain levels of intrusiveness when it comes to news about people who make their living by courting publicity.
There are lines of ethical propriety and general humanity that shouldn’t be crossed when gathering news on celebrities. Yet people who make their living by manipulating news outlets to feed their own myth-making machine are fair game, within the law, in a way that members of the general public are not.
We will not accept the same levels of intrusion when they are applied to ordinary members of the public. What is so repugnant about the News of the World situation is not simply that ordinary people were being spied upon, but that many of those who were targeted were at their most vulnerable. Some had just recently lost loved ones to violent crime or the terrible outcomes of war.
At News of the World, some journalists and perhaps some editors blurred the line between newslite and real news. Even if no laws had been broken, they were applying their standards for reporting celebrity tittle-tattle to stories of real human tragedy, abusing the privacy of innocent victims.
Thankfully, there is still a robust culture of journalistic integrity in Britain. Many hard-working, often underpaid researchers and writers support that culture. But we, the consumers of news, are left to wonder just how widespread is this confusion between the two types of news and of the measures taken to pursue them.
A second question springs from this week’s events, which is also receiving little attention.
How much will these events add to the growing public distrust of major institutions, which traditionally provided the foundations for a stable social order?
At the heart of the MPs expenses scandal was the issue of an abuse of public trust. Newspapers and other media were quick to take up the call for major reforms. Now some sections of the news media themselves are open to a similar charge.
Today, Britain is going through a house-cleaning operation the like of which it hasn't seen for perhaps a generation. It is linked to the initial shock and lingering after-effects of the recent recession.
The sharp outbreak of the financial downturn, arriving unexpectedly as it did on the back of a sustained period of growth, left public confidence reeling. In any downturn, the currency that suffers most is the currency of public confidence. Once shaken, it can take years to re-establish.
In the recession, public anger was first directed at corporate leaders, particularly in the finance and banking sectors. Multi-million pound bonuses were being paid to people who had failed to provide due care in their management of mortgage and pension funds and the like.
The same anger was directed at MPs when, at a time of austerity, it became clear that many of the people’s servants had been lining their pockets. The reputation of Parliament as an institution still hasn’t fully recovered in the eyes of the electorate.
Just prior to the recession, the institutional church had its moral authority called into question in the wake of devastating stories about child abuse. The Catholic Church in particular has still not quite recovered from the revelations.
Each of these institutions, church, business and Parliament, have discovered that public trust is desperately difficult to recapture once it has been compromised.
With the News of the World story, the culture and practices of police forces are under scrutiny and in separate developments the courts have been placed under the microscope.
The conclusion of the Milly Dowler trial saw the emergence of a string of impassioned charges about the way courts of law handle crime victims. A week later, the selection process for British judges was also called into question. At present, it seems, judges are hopelessly out of touch with the general public, socio-economically and ethnically.
Great care will need to be taken to ensure that the public do not also begin to lose trust in either the police or the courts.
During this time of austerity, every major societal institution is being called into question.
There is no hankering after change for change’s sake and people distrust calls for change that appear opportunistic. Some unions run the risk of losing all credibility if they push ahead with strikes that the majority of the public will see as self-serving.
But there is strong desire to ensure that while our economy may be in flux we can at least say that the other foundations of society are in good working order.
In the end, whether it’s in the media, government, business or the law, damaged public trust is only restored when leaders begin to replace short-sighted self-interest with a visible drive for the common good.
Unless the currency of public trust is boosted, Britain will remain a far poorer country even after its economy is fully restored.