Putting the Phone-Hacking Scandal into Perspective

AP Photo/News International
By Andrew Gawthorpe

We are now several weeks removed from the unusual, almost mob-driven mentality that gripped the UK at the height of furore over phone hacking. It progressed like a wrecking ball through the pillars of the British establishment, first claiming the country’s most popular Sunday newspaper, then its most prominent policemen, and finally putting a dent in the Prime Minister’s credibility. There was an unpredictable air about the whole affair, with no-one able to foresee what revelations would come next as – ironically enough – the media itself controlled the drip, drip of information and whipped up the frenzy. 

No-one should be in any doubt that substantial new revelations are coming, but it is possible now to put at least the initial phase of this national debacle into perspective.

What made such a whirlwind of events possible, as with the scandal over MPs’ expenses, was the sudden opening to public scrutiny of practices which hitherto had taken place in the shadows, known only to an initiated elite who did not give sufficient thought to how the whole sorry mess might look if the lid was ever lifted. It is a well-established fact that phone hacking – listening to the voicemails of an individual without their consent – has not been a rarity in tabloid newsrooms over the past decade, and nor have many other shady methods of information-gathering. These practices have flourished under the legal protection of the concept of “the public interest”, which legitimises the invasion of privacy by a media organisation if it is seen as serving some higher, public purpose.

It would have been a bold police commander or politician indeed who had embarked on a quest to sweep these illicit practices from the country’s newsrooms entirely, especially in the wake of the recent scandal over MPs’ expenses.  This affair both underlined the value that the public placed in an aggressive media holding their elected representatives to account in “the public interest”, and pointed towards the difficulty for politicians in taking the media on – they could look like they aspired to censorship, and their careers could be put at risk by vindictive news outlets.  It was best, it seemed, to leave well alone.

What changed this calculation was the sudden and swift emergence of examples of phone hacking at Rupert Murdoch’s  News of the World which it was clear could never be justified in “the public interest”, and which generated revulsion across the entire political spectrum rather than merely among Murdoch’s traditional enemies. If a laissez faire attitude towards the nation’s newsrooms had allowed the voicemail hacking of a murdered schoolgirl, the relatives of grieving service personnel, and victims of the 7/7 subway bombings, a consensus quickly emerged that a new attitude was long overdue.

The intensity of the initial reaction was fuelled not only by revulsion at these revelations, but also by the intense hatred that the mere mentioning of Rupert Murdoch’s name – never mind concrete examples of his wrongdoing – summons up in the British left. It may yet emerge that other news organisations behaved much more poorly than his, but the wider issue of media practice became blurred with the pre-existing war against the media baron, especially as Murdoch’s bid for a controlling stake in BSkyB had already raised concerns about media plurality which were now only accentuated.

Thus the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband suggested that Murdoch ought to be divested of Sky News; Labour peer Lord Kinnock – victim of a famous campaign to discredit him by Murdoch’s papers, and a subsequent general election rout – suggested wholesale state regulation of the media; and some Labour figures even suggested that the Prime Minister ought to resign because his former director of communications, Andy Coulson, is possibly implicated in the scandal.  Of course, none of these things is likely to happen, despite a bravura performance by Miliband. Nevertheless, once the dust has settled and the inquiries have reported, the British political landscape is likely to have changed in some subtle ways.

The influence of Murdoch’s newspapers and of newspapers in general is vastly exaggerated in the minds of the British political class, who sometimes seem perilously close to using them as a proxy for listening to the public. This is odd given how patterns of news consumption have developed in the UK in recent decades. According to a study by the independent communications regulator, in 2009 only 8 per cent of people in the country cited newspapers as their main source of news, while 73 per cent named television.  For the under-30s, the main news source was the internet.

Thus although newspapers continue to have the ability to set the agenda in a way that television and online news does not, fewer people are actually using them as their main source of news, and they certainly do not have the election-deciding powers sometimes ascribed to them. These facts must be borne in mind when we consider how the phone-hacking scandal will affect the country’s media. It seems likely that one of the few organisations  which will have its reputation enhanced by all this is the BBC, which already accounts for a colossal 70 per cent of television news output and is the top online news source.  Thus, the vast majority of the news consumed in the country every day is unlikely to be much affected by the scandal.

But for so long as newspapers hold an outsized influence over the political class, whatever happens to them will be consequential. Newspapers are agenda-setting in a way the BBC is not because of their investigatory capacity, which married with their partisanship can be a formidable tool; the BBC, much more content to report the daily churn of events and unwilling to be too divisive, rarely lands a decisive scoop – although there are exceptions, as with Robert Peston’s reporting during the financial crisis. If the result of the phone-hacking scandal is to place restraint on newspapers – as it surely will be, whether this comes about through regulation or merely through a self-imposed desire not to be the next target of public outrage – then the result is likely to be a media which becomes more like its already-dominant force, the BBC.

As the politicians are fond of saying themselves, this is the key problem facing the country now that a collective decision has been reached that the current system is not working: how to ensure that the new system maintains media diversity and a cutting edge. Whatever the strengths of the BBC – and they are many – the country would be poorer if it lost its more edgy, more partial news organisations. Nor must political partisanship or old grudges be allowed to intrude into this delicate process of reform. It was our unfettered media who uncovered the phone-hacking scandal and forced action by other more complacent parts of the establishment, after all; those who feel they have been the victims of the media must remember that in the future they might reap its benefits, even if some practices and some organisations have placed themselves beyond the pale. But in weeding the garden we must be very careful not to disturb the roses.


Andrew J. Gawthorpe is a media analyst and historian of American foreign policy living in London.  He is currently reading for a PhD in War Studies at King’s College, where his research focuses on the history of nation-building doctrine.


12 August 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/News International