Last week, it broke that News of the World, a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, had allegedly hacked the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. As the week progressed, more allegations came out. The hacking victims now allegedly included military families and July 7 attack victims, and there were whispers of possible police corruption. The scandal broke at a bad time for Murdoch, as he prepared to bid for a heavier share of BSkyB, a deal that now looks likely to fall through. Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron’s former communications director, is embroiled in the controversy, as is Rebekah Brooks, former NOTW editor. NOTW itself has formally stopped publishing.
Plenty of people, including members of Parliament and media rivals, have trashed NOTW for its legal and ethical violations. But in throwing the tabloid (I won’t call it a newspaper) under the bus, I think we’ve missed a real opportunity to evaluate NOTW’s actions and have a debate about how this actually affects the public’s trust in journalists.
Before it was closed, NOTW beat out the Guardian, Telepgraph and Independent in readership — a “red top” gossip sheet had a bigger audience share than Britain’s big three national (and respectable) newspapers. In this sense, NOTW’s tragedy (in terms of what it wrought, not its ultimate demise) is also a readership tragedy. What they peddled, sold well. Does the public have at least some ownership in this debacle, given its appetite for salaciousness?
Given the rabid nature of British tabloids, I perceive that it’s difficult here for journalists to command and maintain trust and respect. Many newspapers, if not most, have outright political leanings, which, to their credit, they make no attempt to hide. Even the BBC isn’t without controversy, whether it’s down to salaries or coverage. I imagine that it’d be frustrating for a legitimate journalist in Britain now, constantly being suspected of hacking, political hit jobs, bias, graft and who knows what else. The many may be tarred by the actions of a few. News International also represents, to many, a corporate infestation in the media. Of course all media is corporate in some sense, but as Murdoch (who is not a British citizen) attempts to buy more and more information properties, the public and the government have legitimate concerns about his outsized influence in politics and culture.
The NOTW’s greatest crime, in the end, may be its devastating blow to the nation’s journalism profession and its integrity.