There is no easy route out of the mess left by the phone hacking scandal, but it should start with the public interestby George Brock / June 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Rebekah Brooks may be free, but the industry she represents is long past its prime. © Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/Press Association Images
The end of this week’s phone-hacking trial was marked by claims both that this was the start of a new and better journalism, and that it was a great day for red-top journalism. Neither claim will stand even brief scrutiny until the much-battered and elusive idea of public interest is placed back at the heart of journalism.
Pundits proclaim new beginnings in journalism on a regular basis. Journalism turns corners all the time but rarely starts over. Journalism is energetically evolutionary for several reasons. The ideas which inspire us are the subject of perpetual dispute, both because power and influence are involved and because the economic, social and political context in which journalism is done never stands still.
Journalism sits at the intersection of democratic and moral purposes (“you really need to know this right now”) and the free market, which is the least-bad way of assuring independence. That junction is an inherently unstable place to be, and has been since journalism took a recognisable modern form in the middle of the 17th century.
Many people speak and write of journalism as if it can be washed whiter than white. They imply that if only regulation was stiffer (or “Leveson-compliant”) and tycoons were removed from the equation, a new era of moral journalism would be born. Never mind trivial, intrusive journalism for a moment: even good journalism requires morally dubious activity (inducing people to break confidences), investigative journalism can require secrecy and guile. Implicit in inquiring journalism is the possibility of doing harm to bad people.
It is for these kinds of reasons that the debate about press regulation is the confused muddle that now exists after Lord Leveson’s inquiry. Do we want to put out of business the kind of meticulous and spot-on accurate reporting by the News of the World which jailed several cricketers for match-fixing not long before the Sunday paper was shut? Unlikely. That kind of long-form sports investigation is now being pursued by sites like Deadspin, the sports arm of Gawker. Gawker is hardly known for its seriousness either.
The rumbustious era of the red-tops is over. The circulations of those papers were in decline before the internet accelerated the trend. The peak circulation…