Monday, 4 July 2011

News of the world != news for the world

Going to be a difficult one, this. A long time ago, an old friend (working class) became most offended because she was accused by another friend (middle class) of reading utter trash. The trash in question was not a red top, which I am much afraid I do believe belongs in the trash bin, but the Daily Express.

Bet you didn't see that one coming.

It all depends on your perspective. She's bought the Express most of her life because it's what her parents bought and still do and she knows where to find the different sections, everything is where she expects it to be and apparently the Su Doku is rather good. Well, fine. As far as I am concerned, what you read is your own business, as long as no one dies. Pretty much my attitude to absolutely everything in life, really, which the obvious caveats (in other words don't be an idiot and deliberately take that out of context, or I shall be intensely cross with you).

Except now I find a problem with this attitude, and it is when I discover, thanks to another newspaper, that the News of the World has managed to descend to such appalling level that they have interfered with a criminal investigation.

There are, now, I would imagine, a large number of families in this country who have been deprived of loved ones in the last few years, sitting and wondering. Has it happened to us? Is there a Private Investigator out there somewhere who knows more about our son or daughters death than we do but who has never come forward with the information because to do so would mean a loss of repeat business and probably at the very least a warning which would show on a criminal record check.

All this aside, there is another issue. 

You see, as my rather middle class friend identified - your paper does define you rather a lot. Some are quite proud of this, most I'd say, others oblivious. But identify it does, our political leanings and our stance on such things as homosexuality, IVF for the over 40's, on art collections hidden away or revealed, whether the Marbles should go back, whether you know which Marbles I'm talking about etc.

So my problem is this. No one who reads the News of the World will ever know the behaviour of the management of the paper if it is left down to only newspapers to broadcast the extent of the issue. No paper is going to tell their readers they've behaved so atrociously. So unless this information somehow finds it way onto the 6 o clock or 10 o clock TV news, the only people who will ever know what a complete bunch of prats the NOTW lot are will be the people who intentionally do not and would not ever line the pockets of its owners.

And here lies the problem with the media. Its scrutiny process has a fundamental flaw. It monitors itself and in the process of doing so it does nothing but inform the people who already know that there is a problem, that there is definitely a confirmed problem.

So I come to my final question. The Press Complaints Commission is there to investigate complaints. But who is watching over the newspapers if no one knows there is a complaint there to be made in the first place? Who is watching the watchers?


  1. The simple answer, of course , is that there is nobody watching the watchers. Whilst the recent revelations are unpalatable and show that there was something seriously wrong at the NOTW at the time, we are in the middle of it, and so probably not in the best position to judge what to do over the long term. I would be very surprised if the NOTW were acting alone here, after all the practice was well known and used before it became illegal. One might wonder why some of News International's competitors are so quiet on the subject.

    I think it would be fair to say that the red tops sometimes mistake a story that the public are interested in with a story that is in the public interest. But you can't blame them - their readers keep coming back for more. There are plenty of options available, they don't have to read stories about soap stars, kiss'n'tells and tarts and vicars. They choose to.
    Sorry, I mean, WE choose to.
    So faced with that uncomfortable truth, we have one of three choices: We accept that the PCC does a reasonable job in most circumstances, or we punish those titles that transgress public decency by stopping buying them and forcing them to go bust, or we appoint a group of the great and the good to monitor the media in this country and see that nobody frightens the horses. Personally I am against self-regulation for any organisation whether it be the press, MPs, Lawyers, doctors - crikey the list seems to be endless. I also think that appointing an external governing body ultimately begs the same question - who watches them? If the press had been governed by a parliamentary body would anyone have ever seen any MP's expenses? who would hold politicians or the powerful to account? By far the best option is to drive transgressors into liquidation through a very public show of disapproval. However I have to be realistic; my refusal to buy a newspaper is not likely to make much difference and if nobody else feels strongly enough to join in, then the paper will escape largely unscathed. So, given that options two and three are either unworkable or are likely to encourage greater abuses by those in power, we are I think left with option one. By all means give the PCC more power- enable them even to close titles down if necessary. Certainly encourage them to take their responsibilities seriously and demand the highest standards from the members. Keep them under scrutiny at all times and vilify them for any error. But I think we have to accept the situation as it stands. It reminds me of Churchill's statement about British Democracy: it's not very good, but it's the best available.

  2. I think I would agree and discussed and concluded the same on Twitter just now with @davidhiggerson. I don't know the answer, it's why I'm asking the question and please believe me when I say I am not being disingenuous. But questions do need to be asked and if the PCC doing whatever the hell it is they're supposed to be doing, and doing it better, is the answer then so be it.

    I am aware of the quietness of other papers - I have been following Tom Watson's modern odyssey from the beginning and at the beginning he was very much a lone voice. What irritates me somewhat is that had Tom not been so persistent, and how persistent can one man remain in the face of utter disinterest, do you think we would know any of this at all?

    I don't believe any 'sector' or 'class' of newspaper is above using questionable methods. I do not believe anyone is lily white. Nor, actually, do I expect them them to be. And it was not until these accusations that I became cross enough to try and articulate it. Humans are human. But there is a line and this crosses it. Sorry.

  3. I think that you are right that there are certain lines which cannot be crossed. I don't condone hacking into people's phones unless there is a very real public interest argument ( please don't ask me to define it, as I am not exactly sure). I think the hacking of celeb's phones is rightly illegal, but could be seen as an extension of the kind of society we live in and reflects a certain amorality that exists in certain parts of the media.
    The hacking of Milly Dowler's phone ( if true ) is on an entirely different level and is inexcusable and indefensible. Interfering with a police investigation and possibly endangering the life of a young girl in the process, just to get a lead on a story is beyond any acceptable journalistic limits.
    As a journalist, I would hope that the police examine this case thoroughly and, if it turns out to be true, that the courts make an example of the perpetrators.

  4. Wait - are you saying there should be a body that wastches over the media, just in case nobody complains about them?

    ** thinks about that for a bit **

    Because that is exactly how the tabloids work. If you remember Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, a programme went out, two million people listened to it and about three complained, then a week later the Daily Mail published an article, and got thousands of people who hadn't listened to the programme to say they most certainly wish they had been offended.

    My point is, a lot of the time, things happen and some people are offended and some people aren't. I think I was one of a tiny minority who was upset with Opera North on Monday, because they were ready to cancel an opera than encourage schoolkids to be tolerant of gay people. A lot of people will let that go. But it's people's opinions that matter. The newspapers are there to report on what's happening, not to tell us what we should or shouldn't feel.

    Oh, and don't forget that the Press Complaints Commission heard a case about phone hacking in 2009, and gave The Guardian a bollocking, because they wouldn't let it lie.