Why the future of the media lies in its most recent past

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

In a year more eventful than most for the media – with George Entwistle departing the BBC abruptly after a fleeting stewardship spent transfixed by oncoming headlights, British prime minister David Cameron peremptorily swatting aside the Leveson Inquiry’s recommendation for statutory regulation of the press, and RTÉ reorganising its news and current-affairs structures following the weapons-grade libel of Fr Kevin Reynolds in 2011 – it was icy corporate behaviour in the private sector, rather than editorial catastrophes in public-service broadcasting, that indicated where problems may lie in the future.

The Australian media group Southern Cross Austereo is ending this year as it ended last year, firefighting on behalf of one of its flagship radio stations, the now globally notorious 2Day FM. Last year’s problem was the shock-jock Kyle Sandilands, who abused and threatened a woman journalist who had criticised him.

“2day FM in Sydney has underperformed since the Kyle Sandilands incident in November 2011,” the group’s 2012 annual report drily noted. “Revenue loss plus increased compliance costs have been issues that have impacted the results of the second half of the year.”

After Australia’s broadcasting regulator imposed unprecedented compliance requirements on all 2Day FM programmes, the parent group challenged the penalty successfully, the requirements applying thereafter only to shows presented by Sandilands and to Hot30 Countdown, the show from which the hoax call to a London hospital, seeking Kate Middleton, was made earlier this month.

Following the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who took the call initially, the station blithely asserted that no laws had been broken. The parent group, having suspended ads on the station temporarily, quickly returned to business as usual, cynically donating the proceeds until the year’s end to a fund benefiting the family of the deceased, a modest price to pay in order to lure back advertisers.

Closer to home, few who have laboured at News International’s coalface could have been overly surprised by the sudden amputation of the News of the World when the phone-hacking controversy posed an existential threat not only to the company’s UK titles but also to Rupert Murdoch’s reign as chairman of News Corporation, which will surely now end only with a string of garlic and a sharpened stake.

There is a pristine quality to News Corp’s inhumanly ruthless survival instinct that is gruesomely fascinating, even when one arrives at its sharp end. Among the many civilian casualties, however, are those on whom the corporation has inflicted catastrophic damage for reasons that have little if anything to do with the public interest and a lot to do with its commercial interests.

One of the most egregious examples was in relation to the pop manager Louis Walsh, whom the Irish edition of the Sun libelled 18 months ago by publishing a false allegation that he had sexually assaulted a man in a Dublin club.

Walsh had pleaded with two senior Sun editors in London to hold off so that the club’s CCTV footage could confirm his innocence. Without any evidence to support it, however, the Sun ran the story.

When the footage proved the allegation was untrue, the accuser became the accused and was subsequently jailed for making a false statement to the Garda. The Sun’s failure to apologise to Walsh even then gave a flavour of the empire’s intransigence even when faced with inevitable loss. Refused a stay on a discovery order in Walsh’s civil case, the Sun finally apologised unreservedly last month, paying him €500,000 damages and sparing the public whatever delights discovery might have unearthed.

The editor in Dublin who handled the story, Michael McNiffe, had for more than three years been one of the 13 members of the Press Council of Ireland and, as such, would have considered a wide range of complaints about press behaviour. He retired from the council three months before the story about Walsh was published. In October, after seven years in charge of the Irish Sun, he stepped down.

Even though the Republic and Australia have robust media regulators, the behaviour of Southern Cross Austereo and News Corporation suggests their deterrent effect is limited. The barrister Gavin Bonnar, who worked on Walsh’s libel case, suggests that in an ideal world a rebalancing of privacy rights, financial penalties as suggested by Leveson and a mechanism of prior notification that involved an independent-minded person sifting evidence before publication could prevent incidents such as the Irish Sun’s. Such a scenario is unlikely to materialise, but a debate about the right to privacy would be a useful start.

The day after the Irish Sun splashed with “Louis probed over ‘sex attack’ on man in loo”, the British mothership led with “Simon Cowell: I back Louis Walsh 100 per cent”, ostensibly supportive but only adding to the damage. Since the case was settled, the mothership has made friendly overtures to Walsh. That libel thing? Nothing personal: just business.


Fintan O’Toole is on leave

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