As a former newspaper journalist and senior editor I’m appalled by the News of The World scandal. The unethical and illegal practices of that paper’s reporters, and of the private investigators employed to gather information about public figures, is reprehensible.
The ramifications for the NoTW publisher News International and global parent News Corporation are profound, with Rupert Murdoch offering humiliating public apologies to British politicians in a globally televised inquiry and the likelihood of tough new regulations and legal action.
There is little doubt in my mind that other UK newspapers will be swept up in this.
The danger in Australia is to associate a distinctly British media culture (borne of the ferocious competition between that country’s national daily tabloids, known as Red Tops) with News Corporation’s Australian media assets.
In almost 18 years working for daily and weekly newspapers owned by News Ltd (the Australian holding company), I did not see or hear of any journalists hacking phone messages, employing PIs, bribing police or indulging in other outrageous illicit or illegal behaviours.
That’s not to say reporters and editors (and the readers who consumed the stories) weren’t indirectly complicit in some ways with the NoTW scandal. Australian newspapers, TV and radio stations and online news sites probably reprinted stories from British newspapers that had been sourced from phone message taps or other illicit activities, or generated their own versions of these stories. But they were certainly not aware of the methods used to gain the original material.
I’m therefore disappointed that public figures, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard, are using the NoTW scandal to push for inquiries into Australian media behaviours and changes to Australia’s own laws governing privacy when no evidence has been provided that it is in fact a problem here. No connection has been drawn between the culture of Britain’s Red Tops and Australia’s News Ltd titles, which operate under a much different business and behavioural framework. It is a step too far.
I am not defending News Ltd, nor all journalists in Australia, but I regard these calls as opportunistic and unjustified. They are an insult to thousands of ethical journalists who work for News Ltd, Fairfax, AAP, ACP, the ABC, SBS, Seven, Nine, Ten and many other proprietors.
Politicians may not like the way some news outlets report on their activities and policies, but they should remember that reporters cast a sceptical eye to governments, oppositions, politicians and policies of all persuasions. It can make them uncomfortable, and when wrongdoing is uncovered it can even cost them their jobs. That’s one of the responsibilities journalists have in a robust democracy.