The phone-hacking scandal undermines independent journalism

Opinion: What we see in the Coulson case is a grotesque parody of journalistic independence: the freedom of the press in thrall to commercial greed, editorial laziness and political power

Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor and ex-press secretary to British Prime Minister David Cameron outside the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court in London. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor and ex-press secretary to British Prime Minister David Cameron outside the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court in London. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Thu, Jun 26, 2014, 12:01

In the past few days, we’ve seen both ends of a spectrum: journalism repressed and journalism run amok. In Egypt, a highly politicised court sentenced three journalists from Al Jazeera to long prison sentences just for doing their jobs. In Britain, an independent court found a highly politicised journalist, Andy Coulson, guilty of systematic criminality in the hacking of phones to secure tabloid stories.

We could hardly have a clearer set of reminders that the undermining of independent journalism can come from two different directions: the arbitrary power of governments and the insidious nature of ruthless ownership.

Journalists feel comfortable fighting the first; they have to learn to be just as courageous in standing up to the second. In one way, journalists tend to talk about the wrong things when they talk about the freedom of the press. They talk about their own rights, about how important it is that they should be free to write or say what they like. These rights matter, of course – very deeply. But they matter because of something more fundamental – the rights of citizens to be informed. Instead of starting with an insistence on their own rights, journalists need to work backwards from the rights of those they purport to serve.

Yes, journalism does need to be as free as possible – but not because the press is somehow outside or above the ordinary rules of society. Journalism needs freedom because a democratic society needs good, independent, challenging journalism. The claims of the media are secondary to the claims of an open, critical democracy. Journalists and media owners need to remember that.

If the right of citizens to be informed is the starting point, what we work back to is the realisation that corrupt journalism is as much of a threat to those rights as the naked oppression that we are seeing in Egypt and elsewhere.

Appalling as it is, repression has the virtue of obviousness: no one can be in any doubt what it means when a government jails reporters for doing their job. Internal corruption, on the other hand, is devious.

The British tabloids that were so steeped in criminality present themselves as being in the business of revelation, as the ultimate friends of openness, shining lights into dark corners. They look like they are in the business of robust and rambunctious truth-telling. They have a swagger, an energy and a roguish charm that seem a million miles away from jobsworth judges handing down sentences at the behest of tyrants. But they can do just as much damage to the idea of journalism as an independent defender of democracy.

Independence is the key question here. It is a value for which journalists around the world are harassed, jailed, even killed. (At least 70 journalists were killed in the course of their work last year.) It is never perfectly attainable but it is nonetheless crucial – journalists and the outlets they work for have a fundamental duty to do their best to tell as much of the truth as they can muster – regardless of whose interest may be damaged.

What we see in the Coulson case is a grotesque parody of journalistic independence: the freedom of the press in thrall to commercial greed, editorial laziness and political power. The phone-hacking scandal brings these three elements together in a perfect storm. That storm is Hurricane Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch’s operations are driven, of course, by the first factor: an insatiable desire for profit. But the two other factors are means to this end. Gossip accessed by illegally hacking a phone is a much cheaper source of stories than old-fashioned legwork. Political influence protects profit by scaring governments away from regulation and from any attempts to break up the monopoly of cross-media operations that in turn terrify those same governments.

Tony Blair was intensely close to Murdoch – David Cameron’s response was to be closer still: socially through Rebekah Brooks (found not guilty on all charges) and politically through the hiring of Coulson as his prime spin doctor. Like any hurricane, this one was immensely destructive, not just of the lives of those unfortunate enough to be targeted directly, but of the very notion of journalism as an independent, democratic force.

The pleasing irony, however, is that the whole affair also produced an excellent demonstration of what such independent journalism actually looks like. The Guardian’s dogged insistence on following a story that had been all but buried is a terrific example of journalists trying to get at the truth, even when they know that the truth is an ugly reflection on journalism itself. In that sense, it may be said that there is reason for optimism: good journalism outed bad journalism.

But there are two reasons not to be so cheerful. One is that Murdoch, as well as Coulson and the rest of the hackers very nearly got away with it. The police dropped the investigation, even though they knew that they had done little more than produce a token culprit for a tiny proportion of the relevant crimes. The political establishment, so terrified of or beholden to Murdoch, mostly did likewise. (The Labour MP Tom Watson being the most notable and noble exception.) The Guardian’s early stories got little attention. If it had not been for the emotional linking of hacking to the fate of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler, the chances are that the News of the World would still be running its breathless phone-hacked “revelations”.

The other reason for caution is that the lesson from this whole affair is one we already know: that too much power inevitably corrupts. In this case, “too much” power includes the ownership of vast cross-media empires – by anyone, whoever they are. The signs that politicians in the UK, or Ireland, are brave enough to break-up those empires are not at all obvious.

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