Hackgate: In praise of… The Guardian

Amidst all sorts of sonorous warnings about politicians taking over, the shortcomings of self regulation, as Toby Harnden notes, if it was British journalism that took its country (repeatedly) down into the gutter, it was British journalism that has also shown the way out:

….most notably Nick Davies and his team at the Guardian, who brought Murdoch to his knees last week. The tipping point came when the Guardian revealed that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked and the Telegraph reported that the families of war dead were also targeted. Seems to me like some pretty good self-regulation there.

It’s a point not quite acknowledged by Guido, but who nonetheless puts the case against statutory regulation succinctly and well:

Momentum is building for press regulation, politicians of all parties are keen to tame the feral press. Public opinion is shifting towards them. This would be a mistake. The rich and the powerful in this country would like nothing better than to have a craven and beholden press. In many countries this is exactly what they have and ordinary people are worse off for it. Privacy laws are a trojan horse for censorship.

Quite so. Although the rich and powerful in this case would appear to include one of those who represented themselves as guardians of such freedoms. As we noted on Thursday, what the News of the World faced in its collapse of public confidence (and revenue) was unprecedented.

We also noted that it’s collapse would not be the end of this affair, by any means.

Its hacks find themselves suddenly (and strangely for them at least) out of touch with public opinion, as well as out of a job. And for good reason. Too many have too long assumed that the only people capable of acting beneath contempt were politicians. And that good journalists cannot break the law.

That turned out to be a dangerous and costly illusion. The assumption that the only way to get at the truth is to serially and seriously breach the privacy of whichever prey is on the menu that day is belied by the critical damage wrought by The Guardian on a vast and wealthy multinational institution that almost everyone, politicians, unions, and other newspaper proprietors had feared to act against.

And how did Nick Davies do it? Less by ‘thinking’ his way into the story (never mind ‘hacking’) but by accumulating and sifting facts by hard work and determination, and by never accepting the story was over even when the cops, politicians, other journalists and even Mr Murdoch insisted it was.

Several aspects of this story have resonance from the old man of the Manchester Guardian’s handbook:

As organisation grows personality may tend to disappear. It is much to control one newspaper well; it is perhaps beyond the reach of any man, or any body of men, to control half a dozen with equal success. It is possible to exaggerate the danger, for the public is not undiscerning. It recognises the authentic voices of conscience and conviction when it finds them, and it has a shrewd intuition of what to accept and what to discount. [Emphasis added]


At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. “Propaganda”, so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard.

In the midst of the storm, Nick Davies’ quietly insistent focus on the story in hand is the one worth continuing to pay close attention to… Much of the rest is mere ‘comment’…

Perhaps it is time for other journalistic institutions to reset their clocks, dump some of their more self-corroding conceits and follow?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty