Phone hacking: Regulators beware—good journalism crosses boundaries too

There is no easy route out of the mess left by the phone hacking scandal, but it should start with the public interest

June 27, 2014
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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 of the Daily Mirror was 1966 and the high point for The Sun was the Thatcher years in the 1980s. The phone-hacking trial only served to underline how far back in history the self-confidence of that kind of journalism was. Max Clifford, the most successful broker of kiss-and-tell, is in jail.

Note also that the trial was for offences that always were crimes against the law. Acquitted or convicted, the defendants were made accountable to the law—the single most important lesson that such a trial can teach. No one, however glamorous, powerful and well connected is beyond the law’s reach, even if it plods slowly to a result.

Regulation of the “press”—whatever that may now be—is supposed to deal with bad behavior that is not against the law. Because the worst behaviour was criminal and because the tabloid papers are losing influence and profitability, the regulation debate is marooned. Many voices urge the control of journalism they don’t like, but it is rare that any two people agree on what exactly is dislikable enough to be punishable.

There is no easy route out of this. Much, even the occasional illegality, can be forgiven if the journalist can show public value in what she or he did. The real problem faced by the red-tops is that they long ago stopped using that as their benchmark.