A couple of hours ago I dashed off a quick tweet in response to the growing scandal of phone hacking by the News of the World. What I said was:
Johann Hari is a liar, Rebekah Brooks is a crook. This isn’t about the politics of left and right, it’s about tolerance of bad journalism.
Of course, I should have said that Rebekah Brooks is an alleged crook, since we currently don’t have any proof that she was involved in the phone hacking – unlike Johann Hari, who is indisputably a liar. But, somehow, I don’t think that she or her employers will have the stomach for a libel suit, even with their resources.
Anyway, I posted the tweet, then went away and did something else for a bit. When I got back I discovered that it had been retweeted halfway round the world and had become the centre of an ongoing discussion. Although it seems that most people who commented on it agree with me, there were a few who felt I was being unfair by bracketing the two together. Ben Stanley (@Beneluk) put it this way:
don’t think it’s the same issue. Hari’s crime vanity and laziness but some moral compass, NOTW genuinely amoral.
I think that’s a fair comment, but I also think it’s slightly missing the point of my original tweet. As I’d said earlier, in response to my good friend George Luke (@georgeluke), what I was trying to get across is my frustration that Hari’s defenders and apologists all come from the left of the political spectrum, while those who seek to excuse or minimise the actions of the NOTW come from the right. Equally, there has been a lot of gloating among the right of centre commentators at Hari’s downfall, while the fiercest attacks on the NOTW have come from the left.
I don’t think that’s helpful. If anything, it detracts from the real issues. There’s an understandable tendency to adopt the position that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, as well as a natural desire to stick up for a person or an organisation that you’ve previously respected. But it’s all too easy when doing so to look for justifications that don’t exist.
Yes, of course Johann Hari’s actions are nowhere near as bad as the NOTW’s in the overall scheme of things. Hari is a liar, a plagiarist and, almost certainly, a prize plonker to boot, but he hasn’t broken the law. Ultimately, the only person Hari is fooling is himself. Intercepting voicemail (and, worse, editing it) is a criminal offence and it’s only right that two journalists from the NOTW have already been jailed for it and others (quite possibly including Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulsen) may well follow. There are also questions to be asked about Rupert Murdoch’s conduct as proprietor – I don’t think anyone seriously thinks he colluded in the hacking (although some of his more fervent critics may wishfully hope so), but if it does turn out that senior executives at News Corporation were involved then that’s a major blow to the credibility of his judgement, management and leadership.
The point I’m trying to make, though, is that damage done to the wider reputation of the media isn’t about the law, or about the left and right of politics. I don’t believe that every columnist at the Independent is a plagiarist. I don’t believe that every reporter at the NOTW is a hacker. And I’m certainly not naive enough to believe everything I read in the papers or to believe that even the better members of the media are always squeaky clean.
Like it or not, most of us are still stuck with the mainstream media as our primary source of news and comment, even in the age of blogs, Twitter and social networking. But the reason why the mainstream media retains that position is because, fundamentally, we have a certain amount of trust for them that we don’t have for random strangers on the web. On the Internet, as the saying goes, nobody knows you’re a dog – and the fake Syrian lesbian blogger demonstrates precisely why that lack of authentication matters.
What Johann Hari and the NOTW hackers have done is to damage the trust that we place in the media. In some ways, that might not be a bad thing – if the public’s eyes are opened to the fact that the tabloid press in particular has considerably fewer moral scruples than the man in the street (and I really don’t think that the NOTW is alone in that respect) then it will do some good. Equally, if the metropolitan liberal chatterati start wondering who else might be lying to them, then they might learn something too.
But, in the long run, we depend on the mainstream media for news and views and, if we can’t trust them to at least be honest about it even if we disagree with them, then that only opens the door for those who would seek to mislead even further. The likes of the BNP, anarchist groups and Islamic fundamentalists thrive on the perception that the media tells lies and they alone tell the truth. Anything which allows them to stand up and say “I told you so” isn’t just bad for journalism, it’s bad for democracy and bad for society itself.
And that’s why Johann Hari and the News of the World are flip sides of the same turd.