For me – as, I am sure, for many people – many of the stories regarding media practices over the past year or two have come as no surprise.
There has traditionally been a huge emphasis on ‘getting a scoop’ in journalistic training. With the rise of tabloid journalism, true investigative journalism has been undermined by highly unethical attempts to break scandals, expose public figures and sell stories – rather than news.
I am not altogether against the exposition of powerful public figures when the information is in public interest – if I am to vote for a politician, I want to know where they are getting their funds from and if they live within the law. However, the task of determining whether or not the public need or have a right to know particular information is a tricky one. In the best scenarios, such public knowledge can be used to hold politicians and other public figures to account; but too often newspapers have come to view their role as some kind of karmic judge, using a skewed view of morality to justify the publication of information which, if we’re honest, the public neither benefits from nor needs.
Earlier in the year, The Independent reported on the case of the News of the World reporter who never was; the false byline used to mask the identity of journalists when breaking particularly unsavoury scandals. Edward Trevor, the epitome of scoop journalists, is the ultimate example of hacks escaping responsibility for the articles they publish. Which brings us to a significant portion of what the Leveson Inquiry is about: ensuring that both individual journalists and the organisations they serve remain accountable, both to the public and to the law.
Of course, if we want the media to be accountable to the public, the onus lies partly with the public to be discerning and critical of what they read. It would be unfair to suggest that until now intrusions of privacy and media bullying have gone completely unnoticed, but perhaps not to say that large segments of the population have been happy to let the tabloids get on with it as long as the gossip they crave keeps flowing. The widespread view that if a famous footballer or wealthy celebrity has an affair, they deserve to be exposed has excused any illicit dealings used to back up these claims has allowed reporters and their readers to feel vindicated in their roles in bringing them down. It is only when people who are widely considered to be innocent victims are targeted that people begin to get tetchy. One of the main points of contention is the intrusion into the McCanns’ affairs; while many people are willing to overlook the odd tapped phone call if it involves a celebrity’s philandering or a politician tax avoidance, few are willing to accept the same treatment of grieving parents.
The upside, of course, is that the phone hacking scandal, the Leveson Inquiry and the widespread discussion of the issues surrounding them are beginning to influence the manner in which people think about media ethics – not simply with regard to the issues of phone hacking and intrusions of privacy, but also with some politicians’ alarmingly close links with media giants. It is commonly held that the public can wield an enormous influence over the media in this country; it is about time we started using it. Only with this and harsher regulations surrounding media practices can we hope for change; but there is hope.
The Leveson Inquiry and the general furore over press ethics over the past few months have had personal significance for me, both as a media consumer and an aspiring journalist. As a child, I always wanted to write, and as my childhood dreams began to form into realistic career aspirations, I became more interested in writing non-fiction and settled upon journalism; although I have considered various career options since then, I have always come back to this. However, for years I have – while not knowing the specific details of individual cases – been well aware that not all journalists obtain their information in completely fair, honest or ethical ways.
My grandmother left school at fourteen to demand a job at a local newspaper; it is her firmly held belief that the editor was shocked into giving her a job, and it is a constant source of inspiration to me that she managed from that point onwards to break into a hugely male-dominated industry. Despite her initial frosty welcome in the archiving and then print rooms, she rose through the ranks to Fleet Street to work at highly successful publications. It was at this point that she left the trade – a move that owed itself largely to the cut-throat and underhand nature of newspaper reporting. The same reasons have always discouraged me from becoming a reporter, and almost caused me to abandon the career path before I had begun to tread it. The sad fact is that anyone placing complete faith in any publication prior to the sudden public interest in media ethics was woefully uninformed and uncritical of news sources. And not merely uninformed but decidedly uncritical; at the very least, I struggle to understand how anyone with a decent academic grounding in any arts subject could fail to treat the material they consume with such an unquestioning acceptance.
Perhaps because of my own reservations, the phone hacking scandal which broke a couple of years ago began to restore my faith in the media industry for two reasons: firstly, because it meant that some of the problems which had been inherent in the system for years were being brought into the open and could then be dealt with; and secondly, because the investigation was initially brought to light by journalists. Let’s not forget that the phone hacking scandal was brought to the fore by a Guardian investigation.
It is because of the promise of greater accountability and more stringent regulation that the Leveson Inquiry represents hope for the media industry, rather than its downfall. Yes, the information that has been brought to light over the course of the proceedings has been disheartening and at times sickening; but I believe this gives us reason to be hopeful, rather than cynical, about the industry’s future.