Ian Burrell: Have newspapers 'gone bonkers' in covering the hacking scandal?


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The Independent Online

Even before the murderous rampage of Anders Breivik had finally dislodged the hacking scandal from the front pages and the lead slot on television bulletins there were signs of a backlash. The media was charged with losing its news antennae, overlooking a run of stories that included African famine, mysterious deaths in Stockport and a meltdown of the euro, to navel-gaze on its own problems.

In The Times last Thursday, a drawing by the paper's esteemed cartoonist Peter Brookes showed an image of a starving African child with an empty bowl and the comment: "I've had a bellyful of phone-hacking." A day earlier, the same paper's executive editor Roger Alton, an industry stalwart who previously edited The Observer and The Independent, expressed similar concerns by saying the BBC had "gone bonkers" in giving so much coverage to hacking. Media commentator Stephen Glover wrote in the Daily Mail on Thursday of the corporation's "unflagging obsession" with the story.

Most remarkably, Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times and the London Evening Standard, wrote his column for The Guardian last Tuesday under the headline: "The Murdoch Story is not a Berlin Wall moment – just daft hysteria." The same edition of that newspaper gave the first seven pages over to hacking.

When famine is ravaging East Africa and the stricken Euro threatens global markets, the British media finds itself accused of navel-gazing. Some who express this view are employees of News International, which is desperate to move the story down the news agenda, and there may be a co-ordinated attempt to achieve that end.

In The Times on Friday, the BBC's Director-General Mark Thompson defended its journalism and highlighted research into the public interest in the phone-hacking story. BBC tracking data indicated that 54 per cent of adults claimed to be following the hacking scandal closely and 81 per cent said it was "important" for the media to cover the story.

According to Professor Ian Hargreaves of the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, the BBC is in a different position to other media organisations in how it approaches this story, not least because the Director-General has publicly attacked BSkyB and News Corp. He said: "I don't think the media has done too much [on hacking]. [But] you would expect that question to be asked about the BBC, given the extent to which Mark Thompson has made the BBC a player in the debate about BSkyB and the News Corp scale in British media. The BBC has to be very careful about it."

Hargreaves, a former director of BBC News & Current Affairs and former editor of The Independent, said: "It's ridiculous to say that this [coverage] has in some way chased away the Euro crisis or famine in Africa. We know that public attention for both of those subjects – hugely important though they are – is limited and my instinct as a journalist and talking to people here in Wales where I live is that people are very interested indeed in this story. Not least because apart from being very important it is a family drama and has a lot of ingredients in it."

In his article, Thompson pointed out that other broadcasters have also cleared the decks for the story, with ITV's News at Ten allocating it more minutes than the BBC's Ten O'Clock News. Jonathan Munro, director of news gathering at ITV News, says there was "real appetite" from the audience for the drama, especially the evidence of Rupert Murdoch and senior colleagues. Major stories, like the Stepping Hill hospital deaths, would otherwise have had "more volume", he said.

On Wednesday evening ITV led its main bulletin with a report by Africa Correspondent Rohit Katchroo on the crisis in Somalia, ahead of the Prime Minister's statement in Parliament on hacking. "At that point I did [think] that the hacking story had perhaps passed a high water mark. There were other things happening in the world which were at that moment a bit more important," said Munro. "I felt it didn't sustain the lead when there was another major international story breaking – namely that it was the day that the UN declared it a famine." He said several viewers called or tweeted to congratulate ITV on its judgment.

Yet newspapers which have consistently given the hacking scandal front page coverage, such as The Guardian, The Independent and i, have seen sharp increases in sales.

Martin Fewell, deputy editor of Channel 4 News, which has repeatedly led on a scandal he says is "on a scale well above the [MPs'] expenses story", says the public has kept this remarkable saga at the top of the news agenda as much as the media's own fascination "I don't think we are out of kilter with the audience, far from it," says Martin Fewell. "We are seeing higher audiences rather than lower ones – that reflects the interest in it."