Ian Hargreaves: Rupert Murdoch is not the only villain on the road to 'Reportergate'

Quality journalism in open societies relies on trust between journalists and their audience

Saturday 29 January 2011 01:00

Anyone familiar with both Wapping and Davos will have no difficulty understanding why Rupert Murdoch seized the opportunity this week to change his travel plans, and spend more time in east London than on the set of I'm Not Quite a Celebrity, Get Me In Here, On Ice.

Murdoch has always preferred business drama and backstairs influence to public rumination. It's one reason he's so good at what he does. This time, however, the business questions facing News Corporation ignite high-value public issues. Murdoch, and his ambitious youngest son James, have put themselves at the centre of public controversy in a manner which, in their own eyes, must represent serious miscalculation. Not surprisingly, the Murdochs' business rivals and others with a score to settle are circling.

The links in the thematic chain are as follows: still unfolding evidence of illegal phone hacking in Mr Murdoch's News of the World; the question of what constitutes too large a share of the UK news media; the way the media and communications industries are regulated and the self-discipline of the Coalition Government.

There is little new to be said for the moment about the phone hacking. We know, as most of us involved in the news business have believed for many months, that the crimes committed by the News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, were not an isolated incident. There is a new police investigation, with the Metropolitan Police itself in the dock for lacklustre handling of the initial case.

If it is established that criminal phone message interception was a much used tool on one or a number of newspapers, and that these practices went on for a period of years without effective management oversight, then the chain of responsibility extends to those responsible for editing these newspapers and managing these businesses at the highest level. That could include at least one individual with the surname Murdoch as well as a former member of the Prime Minister's inner circle.

At the same time, Rupert and James Murdoch are contesting Ofcom's ruling that News Corp's bid for complete control of BSkyB should be referred to the Competition Commission, on the grounds that it raises questions about plurality of news media ownership in the UK. The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, standing in for the disgraced ("I've declared war with Murdoch") Vince Cable, has acknowledged the implications of Ofcom's recommendation, while suggesting that the door remains open for some sort of deal with News Corp, based upon "remedies" to constrain News Corp's reach.

Ofcom is a regulatory body, established in 2003, with a statutory responsibility to further the interests of UK citizens and consumers, not least in making sure that competition law is effectively applied in the media and telecoms industries. Its creation and every step of its existence have been contested by the Murdochs and their newspapers. At one point before the last general election, David Cameron appeared so persuaded of the strength of the case against Ofcom that it appeared in the list of organisations to be abolished.

Ofcom, however, does not regulate newspapers. That is the job of the "self-regulatory" Press Complaints Commission. Now, there is much to be said for regulation of the press by a non-state body: the PCC's chair, Baroness Buscombe, made that case again this week in a self-congratulatory speech in Vienna. In it, Baroness Buscombe said nothing about the revived phone-hacking scandal, which the PCC looked at twice, and accepted on each occasion the "one rotten apple" line of defence.

Given this systemic obfuscation, no one can yet safely judge the quantity of rotten fruit in the newspaper industry larder. It is clear, however, that a self-regulatory body funded by an industry (even allowing for the inclusion of the magazine and regional newspaper industries), where a single proprietor controls 37 per cent of national newspaper sales, risks imbalance. Sufficient plurality is a necessity for credible self-regulation as well as for contented consumers. Baroness Buscombe has recognised the importance of improving the PCC's governance, but current events suggest that she needs to raise her game. The PCC, now without authority over Express group titles following their resignation from the system, is a very long way from being the trusted watchdog that newspaper journalism needs.

The scale of future pressure on all these fronts will depend upon the scale of wrong-doing exposed by the new police inquiry. The charge sheet may well extend to newspapers other than the News of the World and to proprietors other than the Murdochs. The list of civil suits connected alleging phone hacking continues to grow, as does the ambition of journalists reporting the story. Many reporters have behind them a lifetime of loathing for those colleagues at the steamy end of Fleet Street, who, long before the mobile phone, deployed aggressively deceptive and invasive techniques in pursuit of stories and so devalued the coinage of honest journalism.

Some people say that these issues merit less concern today because the press is in decline, its activities, good and bad, diluted by an ever-expanding digital media, some of it outside traditional media industry ownership and control. This indeed is one of the arguments News Corp has used to justify its bid to secure complete control of BSkyB: the news market is more competitive than it used to be.

There is some truth in this, but it is not a complete picture. Analogue-era news brands remain powerful online, even as we approach the end of the second decade of the commercialised internet.

More important, we have seen a number of examples in the past year which indicate the growing importance of professional journalism. The mass leakages of data behind the MPs' expenses scandal, WikiLeaks and the Palestinian papers could not have happened prior to the digital age. Yet none of these data transactions would be viable without the intermediation of professional journalists. The firewall of experienced editorial judgement is crucial to WikiLeaks' defence against the charge of reckless disclosure.

It is in making editorial judgements of this kind, on the basis of robust public interest criteria, that journalists earn the privileges to which democracies entitle them. The availability of those privileges requires journalists to take seriously their own proclaimed codes of conduct – the PCC's Editors' Code, for example. The glaring discrepancy between the requirements of this code and the routine behaviour of some journalists has done more than anything to feed the charge of double standards, which tears away at the public's already fragile sense of trust in journalists.

Quality journalism in open societies relies upon trust between journalists and their audiences. The job of regulators is to frame and nurture that relationship, where necessary with harsh medicine. The job of government ministers is to let the regulators make their decisions, according to an established legal framework, and if the law falls into disrepute, to change it. Neither Mr Cable nor Mr Hunt nor the Prime Minister has had a good phone-hacking crisis.

It is a custom, if a lazy one, in the newspaper business, to apply the suffix "gate" to the scandal of the day, however ephemeral, in ironic homage to the achievements of Woodward and Bernstein in uncovering the Watergate conspiracy. It is not yet clear how sharp sub-editors will label the current controversy as it unfolds. Hackergate? NOWgate? Coulsongate? Murdochgate? Tabloidgate? What we don't want, amid the digital deluge, is Reportergate.

Ian Hargreaves is a former editor of 'The Independent' and was a founding board member of Ofcom. He is now professor of digital economy at Cardiff University

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