"Dark Arts Out, Good News In!"
Recent weeks have given exposure to a number of revelations about the world of tabloid journalism, in particular the investigative techniques employed by the News of the World newspaper, branded the ‘dark arts’.
These include, most notably, the hacking of mobile phones as a means of obtaining the information journalists desired to put together their stories. Said scandalous revelations reached their pinnacle when it was revealed that journalists from the News of the World hired a private investigator to hack into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone. The subsequent deletion of messages between the time when she was murdered and when her body was discovered gave her parents the false hope that she had deleted the messages herself, giving possibility to the idea that she may have been alive. Not only this, but the messages’ deletion could have potentially destroyed valuable evidence the police needed in bringing her killer to justice.
These revelations have cast serious doubt over the ethicality of both News International (a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate News Corporation) and of tabloid journalism in general. They have led to the closure of the News of the World, and what many hope will be an opportunity for positive, British media companies, such as Independent News Ltd, to gain a foothold. Such publications seek to report on stories which may impact on British communities in a positive way, and this sits in stark contrast with the sensationalist style perpetrated by tabloid newspapers such as the News of the World, which seek to create scandal and negativity in order to engage their readers and sell newspapers. Tabloid newspapers, in the view of many, sacrifice objectivity and truthfulness in favour of a style of journalism whose aim is simply to increase readership. In these cases, stories do not serve the public interest and are obvious examples of sensationalism. As Independent News Ltd’s CEO Duncan Williams puts it: “Too often the story is scurrilous or gossip, and it’s hard to claim interest.”
Whilst this style of journalism was previously very popular with British readers, some hope and believe that the phone hacking scandal may have undermined what they see as an unethical and unhealthy media culture. The closure of the News of the World proved an initial triumph, and the independent inquiry set up by Prime Minister David Cameron also showed a commitment to creating a more ethical media culture. The ethics of tabloid journalism, as well of News Corporation, were also put into doubt when another of News Corporation’s tabloids and Britain’s most widely circulated newspaper, The Sun, was also accused of using unethical methods of investigation. These allegations included that The Sun hacked into the phone of Andy Gilchrist, as Scottish trade union leader, in order to publish negative stories about him. The Sun also allegedly illegally obtained medical files containing information about former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s son’s cystic fibrosis.
CEO of Independent News Ltd, Duncan Williams, has called the situation these events have created an “opportunity for positive, British owned media companies to gain a voice”. Many see the root cause of the phone hacking scandal as being the sensationalist culture of tabloid newspapers which demands scandalous, personal stories for which journalists must acquire personal information. This, combined with improper regulation of global media outlets such as News Corporation means that newspapers such as the News of the World have the capacity and the intention to use unethical techniques, or ‘dark arts’, to get the stories they require. Such has been the public outcry against this improper conduct of tabloid publications during this time, figures such as Williams believe that it is a chance to replace the existing media culture with one which takes a more positive outlook and is intent on affecting British society in a positive way.
Williams maintains, however, that he is not opposed to investigative journalism, providing it is used to uncover valid stories which are in the public’s interest. He also states that he is not someone who is opposed to business values, and recognises the importance of businesses being allowed to generate a profit. To what he is opposed is the impediment of freedom of speech that an outlet such as News Corporation is allowed to carry out. By hacking into private phone calls, Williams argues that the action of the News of the World (and any other publication which uses similar investigative practices) is detrimental to freedom of speech. Therefore, Williams contends that a balance must be addressed, and correct regulation must be put in place so that freedom of the press is maintained without individual corporations holding the power to carry out actions such as the phone hacking scandal.
However, Williams and many others feel that a wholesale change needs to happen in the British media so as to make newspapers more ethical, as well as more beneficial to British communities. In order for this to happen, he maintains, publishers such as Independent News Ltd who provide positive news stories need to be allowed to gain a foothold in the British media.