The media, the NotW and the trade in illegally sourced information

So, the News of the World will be no more after this weekend. I can’t say I’ll miss it, although I do feel a little sorry for the staff who will be losing their jobs while the senior executives who allowed the paper’s name to become mud keep theirs.

There is, though, and quite understandably, a lot of gloating going on at the moment. But is this really a victory? I’m not so sure.

In 2006, the Information Commissioner’s Office published a report titled “What Price Privacy Now?“, about the use of illegal methods by private investigators to obtain information for newspapers and other clients. Not all of this is phone hacking, of course (in fact, that’s a fairly small proportion of the total), but the methods used were no less illegal and no less intrusive. In particular, there’s one table which shows the “number of transactions positively identified” as involving illegal and/or intrusive methods and the number of journalists involved, listed by newspaper.  If you download the full document, linked above, it’s on page 9. But here’s the list in simple text format:

Publication Transactions Journalists
Daily Mail 952 58
Sunday People 802 50
Daily Mirror 681 45
Mail on Sunday 266 33
News of the World 182 19
Sunday Mirror 143 25
Best Magazine 134 20
Evening Standard 130 1
The Observer 103 4
Daily Sport 62 4
Sunday Times 52 7
The People 37 19
Daily Express 36 7
Weekend Magazine (Daily Mail) 30 4
Sunday Express 29 8
The Sun 24 4
Closer Magazine 22 5
Sunday Sport 15 1
Night and Day (Mail on Sunday) 9 2
Sunday Business News 8 1
Daily Record 7 2
Saturday (Express) 7 1
Sunday Mirror Magazine 6 1
Real Magazine 4 1
Woman’s Own 4 2
Daily Mirror Magazine 3 2
Mail in Ireland 3 1
Daily Star 2 4
Marie Claire 2 1
Personal Magazine 1 1
Sunday World 1 1

Yes, the data is now nearly five years old, so it doesn’t include the period covered by the NotW scandal. And it’s quite possible that some of the publications at the top of the list have cleared up their act in the meantime. But that’s not what the media themselves are saying.

This may be the end of the road for the News of the World. But it’s not the end of the road for the story. There will be plenty more twists and turns before it’s all over.

Hacking through the NOTW knot

One of the things that’s missing from nearly all the reports into the NOTW phone hacking scandal is that it doesn’t really involve hacking at all, in the sense usually meant by the term. Certainly, it’s nothing like the hacking perpetrated by the likes of online hacker groups such as Anonymous or the now-defunct LulzSec. The use of the word “hacking” usually implies some sort of evil genius, the work of someone who can do things that others can’t. But the actions of the NOTW journalists were nothing like that clever. It wasn’t even clever at all.

Rather than requiring some kind of esoteric knowledge of how phones work, and the ability to do things with them that ordinary people can’t do, all that was necessary for the “hack” to work was for the reporters to obtain the victim’s phone number and be a little bit lucky. They would simply dial the operator’s voicemail line, enter the number and then hope that the victim hadn’t changed the PIN from the default. And, in the majority of cases, the PIN was still set to the default and they were in. Simple, trivial and something that anyone can do.

Of course, the fact that it’s easy doesn’t make it acceptable. Lots of bad things are easy, and many easy bad things – such as this one – are criminal offences.  And even if you think that simply listening to someone’s voicemail is fairly low on the scale of bad things (it is, after all, not much worse than lots of other forms of invasion of privacy which are perfectly legal), I think most people would agree that deleting messages from a murder victim’s voicemail, thus misleading her family and the police into thinking she’s still alive, is a pretty low thing to do.

But what the simplicity of it does mean is that plenty of people know how to do it. I do, and, now that you’ve read this article, so do you. And you can be pretty certain that every investigative journalist worth his salt knows how to do it.

There are a couple of other things it means, too. Firstly, the chances are that it was just one or two rogue journalists at the NOTW who were involved in it is pretty implausible. Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow says as much in his own blog on the subject:

It is no secret amongst those journalists investigating the hacking allegations swirling around News International, that the practice of hacking was not restricted to that stable.

Secondly, it means that any claim by Rebekah Brooks that she was unaware of it during her tenure as editor is equally implausible – anyone in her position would have to know how her staff were obtaining stories. Her only possible defence is the Arnold Rimmer gambit – that she was too incompetent to be guilty. Either way, her position is untenable.

The other interesting thing about this is that it explains the rather schizophrenic way that the rest of the media have covered it. On the one hand, it’s not a story that they particularly want to grow legs – any real investigation is going to turn up cases in their own papers as well as the NOTW, and they’d rather avoid that if possible. But, on the other hand, as long as it’s confined to the NOTW, it’s a perfect opportunity for Murdoch-bashing. If there’s one thing that unites pretty much every other newspaper and broadcaster in the UK, it’s their resentment of Rupert Murdoch’s dominant position in the British media. So it’s understandable if they prefer to gloss over any suggestion that it might go beyond the confines of News Corporation.

It’s a bit less understandable, though, when the same gloss is applied by ostensibly independent commentators and activists. Take this petition from online soapbox 38 Degrees, for example. If they really believe that it’s specifically a Murdoch problem, rather than a tabloid media problem (or possibly not even confined to the tabloids), then they’re as stupid as anyone who thinks Rebekah Brooks has perfectly clean hands. (Incidentally, the number of signatures claimed for the petitions on 38 Degrees is blatantly inflated. It is simply impossible for them to have got the nearly three million they claim for their NHS petition, for example, from the people actually visiting the website. Even the most popular petitions on the old No 10 site didn’t get anywhere near that many. But I digress).

I wrote yesterday that the real damage done by the NOTW scandal (and Johann Hari being exposed as a plagiarist) is to the reputation of the media as a whole. But, in many respects, it’s damage that needs to be done. Because the real scandal is not that a couple of reporters (so far) have been caught breaking the law, or that one columnist (so far) has been found to be a liar, it’s that their respective editors and proprietors never saw it coming or took any action to stop it.

The media needs cleaning up. It needs a new broom of editors and proprietors who pay more than lip service to the concept of ethical journalism. And it needs people to see that it’s an industry-wide problem, not just the preserve of a handful of rotten apples.

Johann Hari and the News of the World: Flip sides of the same turd

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.