Sunday, July 24, 2011

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A wake-up call to the world's media

  • Sunday, July 24, 2011
  • Aruntha Kanagaratnam
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  • The closure of a newspaper, any newspaper, is a sad event in a democracy. It means one less voice for the masses. But sometimes, the closure of a newspaper is inevitable. A number of newspapers has folded recently due to financial constraints and the emergence of new media. Some have even gone web/iPad only.

    News Corporation headquarters and the final edition of News of the World

    But the recent closure of the 168-year-old News of the World of Britain was not due to financial reasons. It was one of the biggest selling newspapers in the country and there was no lack of advertisements either. But certain unethical practices of the newspaper, which no one could condone, led to its closure by its owner, media baron Rupert Murdoch.

    The scandal exploded after it was reported that the News of the World had hacked the mobile phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 while her family and police were desperately searching for her. News of the World operatives reportedly deleted some messages from the phone's voicemail, giving the girl's parents false hope that she was still alive.

    This ignited public outrage far beyond any previous reaction to press intrusion into the lives of politicians and celebrities, which the paper has acknowledged and for which it had paid compensation to some victims.

    Revelations that News of the World paid police for information added fuel to the fire. In the end, there was only one viable option for the Murdochs: closing the mass-circulation newspaper.

    This is exactly what James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and Chief Executive of News Corporation (which owns News of the World, The Sun, Times, Sunday Times and Wall Street Journal) said on the closure of the News of the World: “When I tell people why I am proud to be part of News Corporation, I say that our commitment to journalism and a free press are things that sets us apart. Your work is a credit to this. 'The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company. 'The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself.

    Rupert Murdoch

    "Just as I acknowledge we have made mistakes, I hope you and everyone inside and outside the company will acknowledge that we are doing our utmost to fix them, atone for them, and make sure they never happen again.”

    Invasion into lives

    In a later testimony, Rupert Murdoch said: “This is the most humble day of my career. To all the victims of phone hacking, apologising cannot take back what has happened. I want them to know the depth of my regret for the invasions into their lives, and I will work tirelessly for their forgiveness.”

    The Guardian was one of the first newspapers to reveal the sordid activities of the News of the World. It all began in 2007, when News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were convicted of a conspiracy to hack into phone voice mails of royals and jailed. Andy Coulson, the paper's editor, claimed to be unaware of hacking. In June 2008, News Group newspapers paid a £700,000 settlement to soccer executive Gordon Taylor, whose phone was hacked by Mulcaire.

    In September 2010, former News of the World journalist Sean Hoare alleged that phone hacking was a common practice at the paper and was encouraged by Coulson, who later became Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman. On January 21, 2011, Coulson resigned as Cameron's spokesman because of coverage of the phone-hacking scandal. Also on January 26, London's Metropolitan Police launched a new investigation on voice mail hacking allegations at News of the World.

    On April 5, News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck and former editor Ian Edmondson were arrested on suspicion of intercepting voice mail messages. But it was only on April 10 that the News of the World officially apologised for hacking into voice mails from 2004 to 2006 and set up a compensation system for unnamed victims. A few days later, senior News of the World journalist James Weatherup was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to intercept communications. Freelance journalist Terenia Taras was also arrested on suspicion of phone hacking on June 23.

    James Murdoch Rebekah Brooks

    On July 4, it was revealed that News of the World journalists possibly hacked into then-missing teenager Milly Dowler's voice mail and deleted messages to free space, causing her parents to believe she was still alive. It was also disclosed that phones of families of dead soldiers had been hacked. In addition to a number of arrests that followed the phone hacking revelations, the controversial Chief Executive of News International Rebekah Brooks also resigned.

    Meanwhile, Sean Hoare was found dead at his home in Watford last week. Police say they found no evidence of foul play.

    The closure of the newspaper has not ended the controversy. Rupert Murdoch had to abandon his US$ 12.5 billion bid to completely take over the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. It has also been pointed out that Ofcom, the UK broadcast regulator, has the power to revoke BSkyB's licence should it rule that executives are not "fit and proper" to hold it.

    Questions have been raised over whether the other, more prestigious titles of News Corp also engaged in the same (phone hacking) practice. It has also been questioned whether it is appropriate for one company, virtually controlled by one person, to operate so many media institutions around the world and become so powerful.

    Several other issues have been raised in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. The intense competition between media outlets has led to a no-holds barred approach to finding news, preferably sensational ones. The truth (and usually the privacy of individuals) often become a casualty of this race to be the first.

    Journalists are more likely to employ dubious methods to find their story, a story that the competitors do not get their hands on. True, the public do have an appetite for sensational stories and the whole tabloid newspaper industry caters to this demand often at the expense of journalistic ethics. In fact, in November 2005 News of the World printed a story about Prince William injuring his knee, prompting royal officials to complain to police about probable voice mail hacking. The developments concerning the Rupert Murdoch news empire has again brought into focus the need for all newspapers to follow journalistic codes of conduct.

    Greater regulation

    Another newspaper in the News Corporation group

    Another development is that the incident has sparked calls for greater regulation of the media industry by regulatory bodies or by governments themselves. The media has the responsibility of not misusing media freedom. In England, Prime Minister Cameron has initiated an inquiry which has been asked to make recommendations for "a new, more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media and its independence while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards". The relationship between the media, media personnel, police and politicians has also come under scrutiny in the UK following the scandal.

    However, the traditional media are not the only challenge in this context: there are many citizen journalism sites and social media on the web, which often beat the regular press at their own game. Whether it is possible to regulate these, is a moot point.

    But the media landscape will never be the same again, not just in the UK but also globally after the News of the World scandal. There are growing calls for more transparency on the part of the media, which usually demand the same from governments.

    The press is the guardian of society that exposes the truth, but it should not be at the expense of other values that we cherish in a democracy. A free media is a must for any vibrant democracy and they must uphold impeccable standards at all times.

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