Monday, July 18, 2011

News Corp. scandal - fallout continues

There was a large void this Sunday as news stands across Britain were missing a tabloid that has become the paper of choice for millions. The sullied reputation of the News of the World would no doubt have dented sales further, but the demise of what was arguably the best selling Sunday tabloid has left a vacuum. As the fallout following the hacking scandal continue, the effects on the newspaper industry may be far reaching. 

There are many who never read the News of the World, nor who would have read any tabloid. Aside the deplorable methods used in researching stories, the News of the World did bring entertainment to millions. Britain seems to revel in the tittle tattle dished up by tabloid newspapers, and the serious papers' sales have fallen while the red tops have maintained their top position.

The Guardian, while producing some excellent journalism, continually loses money. Even Rupert Murdoch's broadsheet The Times fails to make a profit. But even as paper sales decline overall in the face of growing new media, tabloid newspapers sell.

The tabloids also employ more people in general. As well as full and part time staff, many freelancers and stringers are regularly hired by the tabloid press. Broadsheets rarely employ freelance photographers, relying on agency pictures and the skeleton staff of in-house photographers. Meanwhile hundreds of freelance photographers and journalists, are called every week by the likes of the Sun, Mirror, Mail and Express to cover stories.

Turn up at a court case in the home counties or central London and most of the snappers will be freelancers employed by the red tops. If the story is of interest to the broadsheets they might send a staffer, but it is more likely they'll rely on pictures from the Press Association.

In over fifteen years as a photo-journalist, tvnewswatch has been witness to such practice first hand. Whether it's a court case, a celebrity story or a hard news story it will usually be one of the tabloids that dispatches a reporter or snapper first.

At the Afghan hijack at Stansted airport in 2000 the first journalists on the scene were freelancers, followed shortly thereafter by hacks from the tabloids. The broadsheets, or heavies, arrived much later along with the TV crews and satellite trucks. As the hours stretched into days, only the tabloids kept a 24 hour presence along with a few television stations. Sky News even relayed a constant video feed from the scene on the Internet. 

It is the same with celebrity stories. Whether it's the sensation surrounding Jade Goody or the events concerning the body found in Michael Barrymore's pool, the tabloids were the first to arrive and the last to leave.

It is true to say that such stories have little relevance. The scandal surrounding MP's expenses or the issues concerning the mining of rare earth deposits in China are arguably far more important than the life and death of a wannabe celebrity from a reality TV show or the death of someone in a TV celebrity's pool. But the general public are less interested in the the dry politics of daily life than they are in the salacious gossip surrounding the glitterati.

The MP expenses scandal was an exception to the rule. It crossed both barriers of tabloid and serious mainstream journalism. While it was the Daily Telegraph who broke the story and revealed the details, it was the tabloid press who revelled in those details. And outside MP's houses it was tabloid hacks and snappers following up, trying to get the reaction from the corrupt members of parliament themselves.

The decline in journalism - serious, hard hitting investigative journalism - has worsened over many years. And it all boils down to money.

No longer can serious papers afford to have journalists working on a story for months before publishing. The likes of the ground breaking Watergate scandal which the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped expose are less likely today. Tabloid papers which might have the resources would likely shy away from such stories in favour of celebrity sex scandals which sell more papers. Of course if all the hard work had already been done and the dossier pertaining to a scandal such as Watergate were to land on the desk of a top selling tabloid, few would ignore it. But papers, tabloid or broadsheet, do not have the time, money or resources to chase tenuous leads as they once did.

Today, papers rely on tips, leaks and worse, illegal methods such as phone hacking. Even less blatant illegal methods for obtaining leads could be considered to be pushing the boundaries of law. For many years newspapers, from the lowly regional weekly to the high profile dailies have relied on information from dubious sources. Journalists, and those acting for them have been known to use wiretaps, bugs, forwarded emails, and radio scanners to intercept information that would otherwise be outside the public domain.

While some journalists and photographers might rely on traffic reports to alert them to an incident on the roads, rail or airports, others might listen in to emergency channels in order to be one step ahead of the pack. In the US it is common practice for journalists to monitor police or fire channels using radio scanners. TV channels have even broadcast excerpts of such material, or at least referred to the information, openly. One photo-journalist writing in the book Running Toward Danger refers to having picked up on the unfolding drama of 9/11 before heading to the scene. In the UK such practice is illegal, but was widely flouted until the emergency services encrypted transmission in the last 5 years.

Obtaining a lead on a breaking story can also be obtained by pay-offs or through merely maintaining a good relationship with a friendly fireman or police officer. While payments are certainly illegal, the legality of a fireman calling up a friendly journalist with a tip is questionable.

Editors of papers would of course turn a blind eye to how the reporter or photographer learned of the information. There is a clear choice of having a front page lead with exclusive pictures of the car crash soon after the event or major fire as flames shot into the sky, or running with a picture shot several hours later of flowers at the scene or a burnt out shell of a house.

Listening in to emergency service broadcasts and air traffic control is one thing - deliberately tapping phones and bugging individuals is another.

But even rules set out by leading journalist unions leave the matter open to question. The National Union of Journalists in Britain states that reporters "obtain material by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means."

Clearly this opens a debate. When is something "overwhelmingly in the public interest"? Are the public interested? All too often that story about the celebrity sex romp interests the public far more than a dry political analysis of European economics. The fact that a local paper will sell more copies with a dramatic crash on its front page over a church fete adds weight to such a notion.

"Straightforward means" in obtaining such stories would entail waiting for a spurned partner to call a paper with a so-called "kiss and tell" account. Getting first hand knowledge of a major accident might be gleaned from regularly phoning the police press office. However, while some stories are handed to papers by disgruntled ex-partners, many publications cannot wait for that possible call. Similarly, information about a triple fatal on the M25 or the hijack of a plane may not make it to a police tape until hours after the incident has been dealt with.

The News of the World clearly went beyond any written or unwritten rules of ethics when they hacked into the voicemails of abducted teenagers, 7/7 victims' families and those of dead or injured soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the buying public should also bear some responsibility. If scandals involving political corruption, environmental destruction by corporations or immoral business practices sold papers then it would not have been abducted schoolgirls, dead soldiers and celebrities being spied on, it would have been politicians and company directors.

This too would have been illegal, though there would have been less controversy, over the bringing down of a corrupt politician taking bribes or a corporation polluting the oceans, than is currently being seen concerning the News of the World's practices in recent years.

The scandal surrounding the News of the World is far more wide reaching. It is possible, even likely, that similar practices have been going on at other papers. Broadcaster and former Sun columnist John Gaunt speaking on BBC's Question Time last week referred to other tabloid's initial muted response to the hacking story as unsurprising. "I'll tell you why they haven't talked about it," he said, "it is simply to do with pot, kettle and black". Actor Hugh Grant, himself the subject of many tabloid stories and a victim of phone hacking, said he had it on good authority that other tabloids had also behaved disreputably.

The newspaper industry, indeed the whole media industry, is likely to be shaken up by the continuing saga that is at present focused on the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch and News International.

Questions will go beyond the actions of journalists and reporters. The police and some politicians are already in the firing line and in the coming weeks and months there will be inquiries, trials and convictions.

In the past week there have been several high profile arrests and resignations. After building pressure, Rebekah Brooks finally resigned her post and found herself arrested on Sunday. Within hours of her arrest the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson quit his post after facing mounting criticism for having hired former News of the World executive Neil Wallis as an advisor in 2006. Wallis himself was questioned last week by police investigating the phone hacking and possible payments to police for stories.

As for Rupert and James Murdoch, they are set to appear before MPs on Tuesday to answer questions over what they knew about the hacking. The appearance will make great television, but few expect them to reveal anything and to deny complicity to the alleged crimes committed by the paper and some of its journalists. Politicians on all sides of the house are calling for an inquiry and for questions to be answered. Across the Atlantic too, US senators have spoken out and the FBI are conducting their own investigation into allegations of hacking and possible pay-offs.

For Murdoch and News International it is not looking good. For the newspaper industry too, the future is far from rosy. And there will be difficult times ahead for the Metropolitan Police as well as politicians. This is one story which is selling papers however, that is unless you're more interested in the European debt crisis.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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