Friday 8 July 2011

Telephones Telephones Telephones

It's been a week for telephones it seems. I started my summer job as a telephone campaigner at my old school Robert Gordon's College, where we've been getting back in touch with our alumni asking them for support towards the George Barton Bursary fund alongside some other projects. As someone who received a bursary myself, this is something I do feel quite passionately about, giving as many young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to have a first class academic education and the best chance to progress in life. The response has been positive so far, with lots of alumni contributing, and most being happy enough to share their experiences of school and what they've been getting up to in the big bad world since then. Some of the "old boys" have very vivid memories of receiving the belt for insolence, something I'm glad was outlawed long before my schooling began!

The big story of the week is, however, the explosion of the News of the World phone hacking scandal. It's been bubbling at boiling point for a while, and I'm surprised that it hadn't become a major story before now. The new evidence that Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl's phone was hacked and messages deleted has provoked substantial moral outrage and rightly so. But I can't understand why the general public were so content to allow all of the previous (and for the most part, as serious) reported instances of this in the last 5-10 years or so to be swept under the proverbial carpet. It seems that as a society we don't care until we can tag it onto a scandal of personalities.

That was partly the problem with the connection between the Sheridan perjury trial and the behaviour of the NOTW in that little bubble. Phone hacking, whilst wrong in and of itself, doesn't undermine the truth or otherwise of the evidence obtained by it. Indeed one of the things we can probably say about phone hacking is that it shows just how far tabloid journalists will go to get a true, if not necessarily very good, story about someone of public notoriety. With Andy Coulson potentially facing perjury charges himself in relation to his comments about paying police for information and hacking phones, I'm struggling to see how, in and of itself, that undermines the reliability of Sheridan's conviction or undermines the assertion that he lied in his original trial. We shall have to wait and see how that appeal goes, I suspect.

The real story behind this, however, is two pronged. Firstly, this sort of illegal subterfuge by journalists (and not just at the NOTW) has been allowed to thrive and dominate (especially tabloid) news because of collusion and incompetence by the law enforcement agencies. That includes the police, who face serious allegations of bribery and a pathetic effort in their initial inquiry, and it also includes the Press Complaints Commission. The latter has been completely lackadaisical in its attempts to investigate complaints and allegations of wrongdoing not just by NOTW but also, for example, the Mirror Group's attempts at "blagging" for information and more generally in its quasi-judicial role of regulatory oversight. I'm pleased to see that it's going and that a full public inquiry is to take place and hopefully it won't pull any punches.

The second issue is the relationship between the media and politicians. There has grown this obsession with the idea that media moguls like Murdoch hold all the cards to winning elections and maintaining public support. This has made politicians fear and revere him which, in turn, gives him political bargaining power. They don't seem to realise that it's all a big con. Manipulating the dissemination of information and political direction is not the end game; it's simply a means to protect and perpetuate the success of News International.

The success of private media enterprises is not in and of itself a bad thing, and indeed it is important that we have a free press which is subject to no more stringent a law than any individual. What we must remember in trying to tackle this scandal is not that regulation (or in the view of some, lack thereof) has failed but that the structures and independence of the regulators, be they politicians or the police or the PCC, has been found wanting. The power isn't being balanced because the elites have engineered a situation where the press and politicians are one and the same.

Where is the impartiality and dispassionate investigatory zeal? Where is the political willpower to enforce existing laws on things like phone-hacking in their own right rather than simply to get a few good headlines or placate media pressure? Why is it that both the Tories and Labour continue to fall over backwards to socialise with Murdoch at a private party just a couple of weeks ago, before pretending to dissociate themselves days later when his organisation is no longer politically chique. Why is it that these politicians pander to the galleries about how awful this media culture is while employing people like Andy Coulson and Tom Baldwin, both of whom have form in the "dark arts".

No, the whole culture of media and politics has to change, and a bit more space between the big and powerful in the two areas of public life would be an excellent place to start. With the PCC getting done away with hopefully we'll see a better form of oversight and enforcement replace it. If the inquiries are to mean anything they have to dig out the corruption in the police or these practices will begin all over again.

A final thought on media plurality and the implications of recent events on the take-over at BSkyB. Plurality is hugely important and it's not the sign of a healthy and free democracy where news output is dominated by a small handful of powerful organisations and individuals. But Murdoch's empire, stretching from the tabloid Sun, the broadsheet Times, to Sky News television, for all its variety, is still responsible for considerably less of the UK's news intake than the BBC. If anyone thinks that giving him full control of BSkyB is going to have a marked effect on diverse news output, I'd give them more than just a sceptical look in return.

Murdoch is interested in making money, and BSkyB's operations have only a passing interest in news output as a relative afterthought: anyone who has ever watched how shit-amateur Sky News is must know that. As and when it goes through we should be concerning ourselves not with the plurality of journalism, for it is still very healthy in this country, but the quality and standards to which the profession holds itself. As for the NOTW? It was a shit paper. Sure it's getting replaced by the Sunday Sun, but even so, good riddance.

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