Will the dirty business of journalism survive hackgate?

16 July 2011

How long will it take for journalism to recover from what has been done in its name by
the News of the World? It’s possible to argue that our profession or trade, or whatever you want to call it, will regroup and find new ways of holding the powerful, the rich and the famous to
account. Rat-like cunning is an eminently transferable skill as the 200 hacks laid off from Wapping this weekend should be able to demonstrate.

It can’t be said too many times that this scandal was initially brought to the public’s attention not by the police nor by parliament but by journalists. There is no one more rat-like
and no one more cunning than the Guardian’s Nick Davies. And I mean that as a compliment.

But there are genuine concerns that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water. Andrew Gilligan wrote eloquently last weekend of the need for journalists to sail close to the wind. Suzanne Moore has now
come out in defence of red-top title-tattle.

But these are uncertain times for journalists, not least those working at the Guardian stable, where the triumph of the phone hacking exposures has coincided with the announcement that the paper
will now be a “web first” news organisation.

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Those who believe that the fourth estate will easily recover from these revelations should spend some time with MPs and ask how well they have recovered from the expenses scandal. They are still
feeling deeply bruised from the experience of having their collective bona fides questioned.

This is not over yet. Any enquiry into the practice of journalism in the first decade of the 21st century will find that large numbers of journalists were using all sorts of
“imaginative” techniques for getting stories. The Information Commissioner’s 2006 report “What Price Privacy?” and its sequel “What Price Privacy Now?”have become the standard texts. Alistair Campbell never
tires of quoting the section of the second report that details just how many national newspapers were using the services of private detectives. There were hundreds.

On this blog in January I wrote: “There are a lot of people out there in journo-land who will continue to shift uncomfortably in their seats and hope that this whole sorry affair blows

Well, it isn’t blowing over and journalists and their editors will need to get the story straight about how it was that thousands of private details to found their way into contact books and
databases across Fleet Street.

I believe many of those reporters were acting in the public interest, chasing down stories of alleged wrongdoing and often using private detectives to allow them to find contact details of the bad
guys in order to put their claims to them before publication.

Since 2006 reporters have had to find new ways of digging the dirt. And I remain optimistic that they will always find a way. As Ryan Giggs has discovered and Rupert Murdoch has always known: great
newspaper stories are created where the rat-like cunning of the reporter meets the insatiable public desire for gossip and revelation. This base, murky but sometimes magnificent profession will
survive this scandal, but it will not be unchanged by it. Perhaps we will be even better at our job when we don’t pay others to do our dirty work for us.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice thhink.

  • Baron

    TrevorsDen asks the obvious question everyone’s totally deaf to: “Why put the blame on the NOTW? Is it because they were the ones who got caught out?
All newspapers were hacking”.

    Trevors, my friend, it ain’t about hacking at all, never has been, everyone knew it had been going on, even those who shout the loudest now, pretend surprise, may have been indirectly on the benefiting end of it, too, it’s about the Senior, his men who got too good at it, were getting all the juicy stuff, readers were keen to buy the rag, the upright tossers at the Guardian were left with the stuff nobody’s interested in, their handling stolen goods, publishing the e-mails attracted as much interest amongst the great unwashed as would a second hand toilet paper chewed by a bunch of baboons, pissed upon by the whole phylum of vertebrates.

    just remember, this is a country where hypocrite is the most common middle name, will you.

  • cuffleyburgers

    Martin – first we need to complete the catharsis of the this particular business – so far the attention has all been on NOTW mainly because they were the most successful, but the numbers seem to show that other paper groups particularly Associated sinned equally as much if not more and I’m sure nobody believes the Mirror’s hands are clean, however the self serving media shitstorm is blowing around NI also for political reasons, a point you curiously don’t make.

    Don’t get me wrong I think their behaviour was deeply distasteful, particurly the Dowler business and the fallen – I just don’t think they are the only ones who have indulged in deeply tasteless journalism to try to sell papers, who can forget the Mirror’s dismal montage of England players in tin helmets on the eve of a match against Germany?

    This will all blow over and I suspect Murdoch will end up eventually with BSKYB, and Cameron will survive weakened, and rightly so because his big weakness his lack of cojones has been shown up. The Grauniad will be the first to go bust, and hopefully at some point, someone might actually start to look at the BBC’s armlock on the British media – which being state-owned and financed by a deeply regressive tax, is a much bigger scandal than NI’s cross-subsidising the quality press by means of the Sun.

  • boulay

    i saw alistair campbell on tv (i think friday) saying that Gilligan was a disgrace to his profession and that he was not a serious journalist. this alone gives me hope that there are decent journalists out there – ie gilligan etc….

  • Rhoda Klapp

    I dunno, maybe we need to hear from someone who teaches journalism courses to find out what ethical training they get. Know anybody?

  • TrevorsDen

    Why put the blame on the NOTW? Is it because they were the ones who got caught out?
    All newspapers were hacking.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Rectinol : 2.49pm

    Bravo, and particularly so for your final paragraph which, although perhaps slightly rhetorical, encourages some hope where until quite recently there was none.

    We need to build a society where deceit and misrepresentation are seen as third-rate and degrading, not as essential tactical accessories for those with ambition – the movers and the shakers – which is how things have been for far too long.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Do you know, I racked my brain seeking out a word for the practice of being bolshie, because bolshieism seemed wrong. What’s the explanation for the mental block that prevented the discovery of bolshieness?

  • Rectinol

    When the journo was invented round the time of the printing-press, the idea was to inform the masses of the world – of the state of affairs. This involved social interests and facts we needed to know. Scandals were popular then to show the public how not to lead their lives.
    ‘Honest’ (look it up) journalism is expected but rarely found, due to vested-crooks and greedy fabricators – and don’t get me started on advertisers who pick the BEST liars to flog their unnecessary tat.
    Dave may have ‘rat-like’ cunning, but he has redeemed himself in the eyes of the masses by ‘honestly’ showing corruption in the un’touche’able media.
    We need to know the Truth, not vested lies. We should be in Utopia by now, and would be had the Truth been told for the last couple of hundred years..

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Graphite : 12.00am

    Interesting thoughts. Thank you.

    We touched on this in a recent thread, discussing whether micropayments or the paywall model is more likely to be the way forward for financing the production of professional communication. I suppose there’s also the possibility that what will develop is a highly streamlined production process, shorn of all those who feed from the current structure, where costs are so low as to be fundable entirely from advertising. Take books for example, the author gets how much out of a £20 cover price? £1? £2? Most of the remaining £18 – £19 are unnecessary costs if we move to a Kindle-type structure. And if people want to read paper rather than a screen, then it’s simple to print the books at home and staple the sheets together.

    Surely if we were starting a communications industry from scatch, now, it would be set up with payments only going to necessary inputs, and it would be far more economically efficient than what will evolve from trying to marry obsolete arrangements with the possibilities for leanness made available by technological advances?

    Of course, I appreciate that there’s a huge social problem with following this route, and that it’s as important as anything to give Mr Average the room to accept change, rather than neo-Luddism, as having the better chance of improving his future. For better or for worse, the last 30 years or so has seen the growth of “Look principally at the Positives” as the model for social decision-making. This approach is very highly thought of, but I think that what it ignores is that however much the decision-makers’ task is eased by making the downsides and scepticism less significant, so it is made more difficult by the intensification of distrust from those to whom the downsides and scepticism have a personal dimension. In other words, if the personal concerns of the directly involved were treated with a bit more consideration, perhaps the drift into irrational bolshieism and lack of co-operation would be stemmed.

  • Graphite

    For most of the period that civilised man has occupied the Earth, newspapers were unknown. And in times to come, our descendants will also get by without them. What takes their place is unknown, but a number of good guesses are currently provided by the internet.

    Tittle-tattlers have always been among us, of course, that bunch having their heyday over the past century when an almost universal ability to read met political freedoms and industrial genius. Because of this happy circumstance, journalists and their bosses experienced the sort of good times ropemakers and sailmakers enjoyed in the 19th century.

    And there is one thing that is always overlooked by the scribblers; the primary purpose of a newspaper is to carry advertising. Everybody who works for a newspaper, bar those scribblers, knows this.

    The News of the World wasn’t shut down because it had done something naughty . . . it was shut down because its advertising dried up.

    I’d give newspapers in their current form about 10 to 15 years then, just as the tea clippers evolved into America’s Cup yachts, they’ll become items of fun rather than trade as the heavy lifting is done by more modern means.

    My advice: Don’t put your boy on the page, Mr Worthington.

  • Anthony Connell

    This article is a perfect example of the pompous arrogance of scribblers who glorify themselves as the only job (not “profession” and barely a “trade”) that stands between us and totalitarianism. If most of them stopped writing their “stories” (an illuminating phrase) we would hardly noticwe they were missing.

  • Sir Graphus

    Good journalism has always relied on illegal means to obtain information. Otherwise all they have to go on is mendacious press releases.

    I bet the likes of Campbell would love it if all they had to go on were his words.

    I bet the ludicrously self-righteous John Prescott would have loved to have kept secret his affair that disgraced his office and would have led an honourable man to resign.

    No new laws or regulation needed as a result of the phone-hacking scandal. It’s already illegal, and the perpetrators will be in gaol or ruined.

  • In2minds

    “There is no one more rat-like and no one more cunning than the Guardian’s Nick Davies” –

    And what a pity there’s not more of this rodent stuff at the Guardian eh? For then they would not have had to apologise to the Sun.

    Also the Guardian will be a – “web first” news organisation. I think you will find the truth is it’s going bankrupt. More on that story later?

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