For many years, conventional wisdom held than only a fool would pick a fight with someone who bought ink by the barrel. Like the underworld gangster with a reputation for violence, the threat of enthusiastic press attention was enough to keep behaviour in check. Newspaper owners enjoyed tacit power with limited responsibility. A small number of journalists and editors believed that same authority was transferrable directly to them.
Then, Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, was caught hacking the mobile phone voicemails of a number of public figures. He had been commissioned to do so by editorial staff at the News of the World.
At first, interest in the story was the preserve of media darlings and the chattering classes. But then, Millie Dowler’s family were introduced to the plot and the story, and the public’s interest in it, changed.
At that stage, Rupert Murdoch sacrificed one of the English-speaking world’s largest selling tabloid newspapers and a number of his senior executives. He even made a £3 million apology to the Dowler family. But it was too late. The lid couldn’t be closed. Fear of the all powerful newspaper proprietor seemed to evaporate in an instant. The political response was as rapid as it was thorough, and a procession of actors, writers and slebs got in line near the TV cameras to express their unhappiness at press intrusion into their personal lives.
There is no question that what a handful of journalists did in the name of news gathering was both illegal and immoral. Their actions have been rightly and roundly condemned. But I’ll forgive anyone for wondering whether the political reaction would have been as swift and comprehensive had the British press not found and feasted on the MP’s expenses scandal just a few short years earlier. Similarly, the personalities (and their PR consultants) who had previously and happily conspired with the media to help amass vast fortunes, had their horror lists ready too.
The impact of the phone hacking scandal is likely to have far reaching repercussions for journalism in the future. An industry already in alarming decline, journalism will spend the coming months redefining the rules for the future. One journalistic acquaintance even admitted to me this week that, was he to meet an attractive stranger in a bar who enquired how he made a living, he’d prefer to say he was a tax inspector.
The Leveson inquiry has been tasked with making recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance in the UK. These recommendations, it says, will be ‘consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards’. Whether Leveson ends up recommending a new code of voluntary practice with sharper teeth than the Press Complaints Committee, or the oversight of an external authority, remains to be seen. But the independence of the press to hold public bodies and elected officials to account, and to shine a light on corruption and hypocrisy in politics, in business and society must be preserved at all costs.
The illegal actions of the illicit few do not represent, and should not undermine, the integrity of the many. The many, including my single friend, should refuse to feel compromised.
Like journalism, public relations is an industry staffed by career professionals with a strong sense of ethics. But like journalism, it has been guilty of the occasional indiscretion, or ‘Jo Moore moment’ as we sometimes like to call them.
True and potentially damaging stories have been unearthed by reporters, only to be flatly denied by a member of the PR team and spiked.
The good half of a mixed story has been issued to a journalist writing to deadline in the hope that the less good half goes unnoticed, while negative stories are leaked to reporters on secondary titles so that the news can be dismissed as ‘old’ when the mainstream press catch up.
Journalism will search its soul over the coming months. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea if PRs did the same, quietly and privately, and eliminated any residual (and minority) bad practices in the process.