Murdochgate: “It is not, as News International claimed, one rotten apple; it is a culture…”

BBC Radio Four’s The Media Show yesterday opened with a bit of a ding dong between John Lloyd of the Reuters Institute at Oxford and Anne McElvoy of the London Evening Standard. Lloyd opened with this:

John Lloyd – “Whether it was on a modest scale or an industrial scale what some journalists where doing was using their power and their money and the backing of their news organisation to substantially diminish people’s privacy and their civil and human right and that from people who’s job is, whose ideals are to uphold people’s rights [and] that they hold power to account is a terrible thing to be done. It is very, very serious.

McElvoy – Can I come back to John on that because I am not sure how far he wants to cast this privacy net, because if you are taking a newspaper which is investigating a large company which we suspect may be up to no good, and therefore uses private investigators to access phone calls or intercept email traffic, would you not think that was in the public interest. Would your rather sweeping defence of privacy not prevent that investigation going ahead.

Hewlett – There things to which there is a public interest defence and there are other things where there is strict liability, in the case of phone tapping, that’s illegal there is no public interest defence. Would you condone that in any circumstances?

McElvoy – [stutters] It’s not for me to condone things that are illegal. But I think if you go around and ask every newspaper editor if they had to honest and asked them whether they had turned a blind eye to the use of a private investigator whose methods included phone tapping I don’t think that an awful lot of them could say, depending on their budgets, could say no. That’s where I think there is a degree of hypocrisy here and we are just piling in on the tabloids because it is perfectly clear that it is easy to say there is no public interest. And there is a little bit of an edge there because we don’t like what they do. The moral problematic ones are when you are investigating something that does have a public interest, how far are you allowed to go.

The debate is later joined by Glenda Cooper who’s just brought out a report on behalf of the Reuters Institute, on Privacy, Probity and Public Interest

In general, McElvoy warns that any move to introduce a privacy law would be resisted by the industry, tooth and nail. Lloyd makes the point that whilst newspapers are furtling around in the personal lives of politicians whilst serious investigation of what those politicians are actually up to substantially goes abegging…

Cooper suggests we are slowly moving towards a surveillance society, but via ‘big journalism’, not simply the state.

For her part, McElvoy answers a question that actually was not raised by Lloyd, and carefully slides away from the cultural and ethical question of what’s passing as routine inside the Murdoch papers (according to one former Sunday Times hack Slugger’s spoken to, the practice is, if anything, worse there than at the NOTW).

For her the least assertion of an individual’s right to privacy is likely to have the undesirable corollary of curtailing the freedoms of the media; even when it comes pretty close to breaching the democratic (albeit the vague unwritten and for many of us outside the machine, therefore unknowable) constitution of the UK.

And, she warns, it will be resisted robustly by the big media corporations.

And yet I wonder if the real problem here is political cowardice, rather than something requiring a actual change in the law. If ordinary politicians were to begin demonstrating (and even better, documenting) the kinds of intrusive surveillance they are often subjected to, the public might become a little less tolerant of the routine breach of human rights the current culture allows.

In the last week there have been all manner of papers and media institutions sagely shaking their heads saying that Mr Coulson’s big mistake is that he allowed himself to become the story.

The truth is that British mainstream media as an entirely unaccountable institution has become the story at the heart of Nick Davies’s investigation into the shenanigans in the Murdoch empire.

Its egregious and routine breaches of privacy, not to mention the close and cosy relationship it has developed, firstly with Tony Blair and latterly with David Cameron and George Osborne (who according to Stephen Glover are almost slavishly following Blair’s template) are worthy of further penetrative and sober investigation…

If as I have argued at Reuters Institute (where Lloyd is director), the blogging phenomenon has prospered through the huge gaps left by the conventional media, this may be an opportunity to press home the advantage bloggers have of being multiple and mostly unattached to larger interests, and take up a task so unsurreptitiously being dropped by all but one of Britian’s big national newspapers.

That means digging around in the background to find out just what’s really been going on…

Then maybe, just maybe, it can justifiably be said that citizen journalism has contributed something towards saving the ancient art of serious investigative journalism by filling the gaps that it either can’t or won’t do for itself…

Otherwise we are in danger of believing our own propaganda about holding big media and politics to account, without ever doing anything to actually prove it

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  • Very well put and I am in agreement. However, doesn’t speak volumes that numerous right wing blogs have not entered the debate since the Guardian’s releveations?

    Glover has made an important contribution in a couple of articles and what he had to say about the BBC/Guardian relationship is important. There has been two instances off this now in a matter of weeks but very little has been made of it. I added my two-pennyworth on my blog this morning.

  • Sam Flanagan

    This story really seems to have got your inerest Mick!

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s a very toothy story it seems to me. Useful too to point out to people in Northern Ireland that democracy is messy, not platonic and pristine…

  • Sam Flanagan

    It is all very simple, the Vatican controls Murdoch, Murdoch controls the British politicians!

    The great British public still cannot understand why their politicians will not give them a referendum on EU membership.

    All the British politicians have far too many “dirty secrets” and Murdoch knows them all.

    Any British politician or group of politicians who stray dangerously near giving the public a referendum will have their lives and careers destroyed.

  • Mick Fealty

    Sam, that would be convenient. If there is a penetrating and sober blog inquiry, and this’s what it concludes, you’ll be the first I’ll tell!

    Until then, I’ll be keeping an open mind…

  • Brian Walker

    Impressive piece of transcribing, Mick. Have you got shorthand?

  • William

    “…..according to one former Sunday Times hack Slugger’s spoken to, the practice is, if anything, worse there than at the NOTW’. — So Mick’s being consulting Liam Clarke ??????

  • Mick Fealty

    You need to get out more William. Liam’s still working for the ST, albeit not as a staffer. For the record and before you go dragging anyone else’s name into this under fraudulent pretences; it wasn’t anyone from Northern Ireland. Nor the Republic, before you start on people from there as well.

    BTW you’ve been barred several times for similarly putting false misleading information into the comment zone already… You do yourself a huge discredit by continuing to breach that ban…

  • RepublicanStones

    Mick do you give any credence to the view that the politicians are grinding the axe with this phone tapping story as a little payback for the expenses?

    ‘If ordinary politicians were to begin telling (and even better, documenting) the kinds of intrusive surveillance they are being subjected to, the public might become a little less tolerant of the routine breach of human rights the current culture allows.’

    I fear they may tut and shake their head, but the papers/magazines will continue to sell.

    As regards blogs filling the gap because of the freedom they have over the big ‘Newscorp multinational interests dictating the agenda’ type media. Do you think this will last? Also hasn’t there recently been moves to try and draft legislation to police blogs in certain quarters?

  • willis

    There is another story being played out at this moment which is relevant:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jul/15/richard-desmond-tom-bower-conrad-black-sunday-express

    We can perhaps categorise intrusive/illegal? journalism 3 ways:

    1. Only way to get important story – public interest defence.

    2. Tittle – tattle – amusing to see the mighty fallen but frankly indefensible.

    3. Written at the behest of the owner – an attempt to manipulate public opinion on behalf of Desmond/Rothermere/Murdoch.

    What was the Gordon Taylor story about that it needed £1m to gag?

    Gordon Taylor is chief exec of the Professional Footballers Association.

    The jewel in Sky’s crown is the rights to Premiership football.

    Time will tell

  • RepublicanStones

    Just to give this whole Murdochgate a ‘Norn Iron’ link. We all remember Patten. Im sure a few will remember the difficulty he had in getting his memoirs of being the last Hong Kong Governor published.

  • Mick Fealty

    RS:

    I’m watching Question Time, and what I sense is a kind of rapprochement between the audience and the politicians. After weeks of some kind of intense war had come to ceasefire, if not a genuine end. What’s interesting is the apparent unravelling of the Conservative attack.

    Strangely the Conservative rep is being laughed at for defending Chris Grayling’s bizarre proposal of confiscating mobile phones. Boris’s chickenfeed remark also getting stick. You’d have to think something’s going badly wrong inside the party at the moment.

    I wonder if Coulson being associated with this nasty end of journalism and the sense that his company misled parliament when they told the Media Committee, in the short term at least is setting up a strange dynamic at moment.

    I think they may be enjoying a respite. But anyone who bets on the beast not going back to its old habits with properly being stung is throwing good money after bad.

    As for blogging, it’s a pitch for some kind of non state scrutiny over what media is actually doing. Whether it actually materialises is another matter. There are some really good investigative blogs around already, but it hasn’t happened yet, not in Britain anyway

    What I know is that in the states, some blogs like Drudge are universally admired for its agenda setting capacity, so it could happen…

    My argument is that if the MSM are going to refuse to investigate themselves, they are handing us a very big opportunity to kick corporate ass…

  • willis
  • “they are handing us a very big opportunity to kick corporate ass…”

    Mick, I think ‘tickle with a feather duster’ is a more apt metaphor 🙂