It is a huge story. The allegations that the News of the World hacked into Milly Dowler’s phone and not only listened to the messages but also deleted some of them to free-up space for new messages which, according to the Guardian, led to:
friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive…
The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper’s own intervention.
For many people these allegations are genuinely shocking and many people across the UK and beyond are asking the question: ‘how could they do this?’
However, the real question should be: ‘how are so many people unaware that this isn’t an isolated incident of morally bankrupt journalism, but the norm?’
I’m pleased that people are sitting up and taking notice. I’m pleased that Ford are boycotting advertising with the News of the World and that other big companies are considering doing the same. But I also wonder as to why it has taken so long for public perception and big corporations to draw a line between what is merely accepted as bad journalism and what causes public outrage as being completely unacceptable journalism.
For instance, in September last year YouGov published a poll titled ‘Who do you trust?’ which was covered by Tabloid Watch at the time but failed to gain any significant mainstream coverage. The poll revealed that journalists on ‘mid-market’ newspapers (Mail, Express) only had the total trust of just 21% of the people surveyed (down from 36% in 2003); whilst 71% claimed to have not much/no trust in them. It was even worse for the journalists on ‘red-top tabloid’ newspapers who only had the total trust of just 10% of the people surveyed (down from 14% in 2003); whilst 83% claimed to have not much/no trust in them.
We appear to be in a situation in which the majority of newspaper consumers accept without protest that what they read each day is not or cannot to be trusted. Trust or truth in journalism does not appear to be significant in raising public levels of outrage against newspapers, nor in itself is the invasion of privacy. The general public don’t seem to be concerned with the phone hacking of celebrities or prominent politicians, but they are outraged at the alleged hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone (and the fresh allegations that the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman may have been targeted as well).
This, I think, is part of the problem. As consumers we can’t afford to be selectively outraged by an illegal technique depending on who it targets. We can’t keep buying newspapers or logging onto newspaper websites to lap up highly invasive articles / images of celebrities that were obtained through phone-hacking or aggressive journalism that borders on stalking, but then turn around and act shocked that they use the same techniques when dealing with bereaved families or missing 13-year-old girls. If any lesson can be taken away from studying the press it is that they cannot be trusted to regulate their own behaviour and the tools that once may have been used for legitimate investigative journalism are now just as likely to be turned on any unlucky individual who finds his or herself in their spotlight.
I can’t help but feel that the general public should have been outraged an awful long time ago – and not just about individual cases of press abuse, but the general expectations we all have when we pick up any paper. For example, how is it that we live in a society where we feel it is acceptable to routinely not trust what we read in newspapers? Why do even seasoned, loyal newspaper readers always feel the need to inform you – with a knowing nod – if you question their choice of newspaper that you shouldn’t worry about them because they take it all with a pinch of salt?
The Milly Dowler story – and the fresh allegations that will be breaking from now on – should be the catalyst that finally awakens the realisation that our press is no longer fit for purpose – and hasn’t been for an awful long time. This isn’t just the concern of media bloggers or the Guardian, it is the concern of all of us who care about the society we live in and the huge impact that media narratives have on influencing our daily interactions with those around us. Any one of us could be the next Christopher Jefferies, who has had to resort to the courts to pursue some form of redress for the smears he suffered for a crime of which he was found entirely innocent. As BBC Legal correspondent Clive Coleman points out:
It’s an indication of the significance of these contempt proceedings that the Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC has appeared in person to outline the case in front of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge.
Mr Grieve described the material published about Christopher Jefferies as being so exceptional and memorable in its impact as to risk prejudicing and impeding a fair trial.
He pointed in particular to suggestions that Mr Jefferies was a sexually perverted voyeur, that he had possibly been involved in a previous murder and that he was a close friend of a known paedophile.
For what it’s worth, the ‘Sun and Daily Mirror dispute Mr Grieve’s claims, and deny contempt’.
What should not be forgotten in all of this is that it is easy to humanise and sympathise with the victims of this latest alleged hacking. Whilst the majority might – and seemingly do – generally accept the hacking of politicians and celebrities for whatever dubious justification of misunderstood public interest, almost everyone seems to draw the line when the victim is a 13-year-old girl and her family. However, we must also face up to our responsibility to stand up and be counted not just when the victims are easily identifiable and real to us, but also when the victims are a much larger group who – although we cannot instantly identify with in the same way that we can do when we have names, ages, photos and context – are no less deserving of our collective outrage, action and support.
For example any Muslim or perceived Muslim who has suffered racial abuse or other actions as a result of a systematic smear campaign conducted by a range of newspapers. I don’t recall politicians calling for press reform when Radio 4’s excellent Face the Facts program so searingly covered Islamophobia in the media and the consequences for its victims. According to Roy Greenslade, Lord Rothermere – chairman of the Daily Mail & General Trust – was ‘appalled’ at the Milly Dowler hacking allegations and he felt compelled to make sure the Daily Mail doesn’t use hacking in its journalism. Apparently Paul Dacre – Daily Mail editor-in-chief – answered that (according to Greenslade) ‘the Mail has never done anything so disgusting’.
Although it is noticeable that the lawyers of Associated Newspapers haven’t contacted the New Statesman over the allegations made in a Hugh Grant article in which he bugs former News of the World executive Paul McMullan. Grant recorded McMullan claim that the Mail did use stories based on hacking:
For about four or five years they’ve absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren’t. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Paul Dacre became editor in 1992. Who knows, perhaps all editors just do not know what their journalists get up to.
The important point is that Lord Rothermere sat idly by whilst Littlejohn attacked dead women and the rest of the Mail’s journalists go after just about every form of minority using a variety of lies to stir up racial and religious hatred in much the same way as the general public has.
Do we really value 13-year-old girls more than any other human beings? If we don’t then it’s about time we got a lot angrier about an awful lot more and we finally make it absolutely clear that the behaviour of our press is completely unacceptable. This means we boycott them, en masse, whilst pursuing the dissolution of the Press Complaints Comission and the formation of a proper regulator in the mould of Ofcom.