Mary Dejevsky: Condemning Murdoch is too easy

It's convenient for some people that an impression is being created that these practices were unique to News International

Share
Related Topics

It exploded like a thunderclap in every newsroom in the land. Rupert Murdoch's response to the vilification of his newspapers was to sacrifice the very first title he had bought in Britain. Phone-hacking had become a cipher for the depravity of journalism. It no longer targeted only celebrities – about whom few evinced great concern – but missing children, victims of atrocities and grieving families. Mass snooping on individuals at their most vulnerable in pursuit of a "story" had been traced back to Murdoch and his diabolical ways. The closure of the News of the World will only reinforce that impression. There was immediate dancing on its grave.

Of course, the pain and alarm caused to those who now have reason to believe that their very private conversations were overheard cannot be trivialised. The very idea that anyone thought that hacking their calls was an acceptable way to earn their daily bread beggars the belief of most people – though not, I suspect, the belief of many journalists. There are sections of the profession (craft, industry, as you like), which cross the line of common decency. At times, as here, they also cross the line into illegality.

Yet the construction that has gained currency – of a Murdoch press that routinely tramples ethical norms and in so doing contaminates the British media as a whole – reflects a simplistic, and partial view. There is more going on with the phone-hacking scandal than a simple parable of right and wrong. Here are five reasons why.

First, Murdoch. It is easy to demonise Rupert Murdoch. Yet without his involvement in the British media, the newspapers he now owns might not exist at all. As someone who worked for The Times, I concede an interest here. His defeat of the print unions changed the economics of the British press and made new ventures, such as The Independent, feasible. With Sky, he transformed the television landscape, giving British viewers a breadth of choice that has only recently come to the rest of Europe.

With each expansion he made new enemies, with many seeing any Murdoch gain as a threat. It may or may not be coincidence that each twist of the phone-hacking scandal seemed to coincide with a stage in Murdoch's efforts to gain the majority stake in BSkyB. Each revelation has served as a convenient peg to hang an anti-Murdoch agenda on.

No less convenient for some is the impression being created that such practices were unique to the Murdoch organisation. It is just about possible to argue that the cut-throat competition that followed Murdoch's arrival on the British media scene meant that blind eyes were turned to borderline criminal methods, so long as the stories they produced helped to increase circulation. But it is disingenuous to believe that the News of the World was alone in crossing the line. Other names were mentioned during Wednesday's parliamentary debate, but passed over in the reporting. This is by no means an exclusively Murdoch phenomenon, and to identify it as such is wrong.

Second, the phone-hacking itself. There would appear to be no doubt whatever that Milly Dowler's phone was hacked after she went missing, but before her body was found, or that messages were deleted by a third party to make room for more, and that this was done at the behest of a journalist with a view to bagging an "exclusive". Whatever the purpose, it was reprehensible in the extreme, giving her family hope that she might be alive. But the fact that a name and numbers appear in the extensive records of a private investigator, does not of itself mean that the phone was hacked. Any journalist or investigator has an extensive contacts list, which includes personal and ex-directory numbers obtained quite legitimately. It will be scant comfort to all those informed by the police that their names were on the investigator's list. But their privacy may be intact.

Third, culpability. The obtaining of confidential information is a two-way process. So far, the blame has attached almost entirely to the investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, whose records are being combed by the police, and the News of the World. Yet those who held the information and divulged it are equally culpable. They were trusted with sensitive personal data – police archives, car licence-plates, NHS records – and they betrayed, or more likely sold, that trust. Hacking takes human, as well as technical, expertise.

One reason why attention has focused on the recipient rather than the supplier may be the difficulty of tracing the latter (or the reluctance of the police to pursue their own). But the opprobrium directed to the News of the World has tended to concentrate on morality, when criminality would be at least as appropriate. Phone-hacking is a crime. If it was evident, as on occasion it was, that a newspaper had relied on hacked information, the police could have pursued it.

But, fourth, not everything is so clear-cut. There is a get-out clause: the famous (in journalistic circles) public interest defence. This is how The Daily Telegraph was able to get away with the sordid reality that its string of exclusives about MPs' expenses relied on stolen data that it had bought. It is, to put it mildly, hard to fathom how hacking the phone of a 7/7 victim's relative could ever be in the public interest, but what if, say, it highlighted some criminal shortcoming in the emergency services?

The line that defines where the public interest lies can be slender in the extreme. Nor is there always agreement about where it runs. Remember the controversies stirred by many of the WikiLeaks revelations. There are times when one person's right to know is another person's violation of privacy. Even the sainted BBC had to admit – after a Panorama programme in which it appeared to suggest it was above such things – that it employed private detectives to help make its investigative programmes, insisting that their use had to comply with the Corporation's guidelines.

And, finally, fifth. If, as you must, you grant that dubious and even illegal journalistic techniques – not just hacking phones, but disguise, subterfuge, secret recording and the like – go beyond the News of the World, and if you also admit that the purpose of the investigations cannot always be defined as being in some high-flown public interest, then you must look beyond the Murdoch stable to the culture of the popular press in Britain. And from there it is not hard to conclude that market competition, the journalistic rat-race, and a neglect of basic training, have combined to bring the newspapers to the pretty pass they have reached today.

One consequence – extroardinary, spectacular – is the death of a great, but tarnished, newspaper. Another – more prosaic, but highly damaging – is the regrettable tendency for all newspapers to be tarred with the same brush of immorality and ruthless self-interest.



m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence