ICE blogs

November 1, 2011

Hackgate and its implications

Tim Crook reports on the annual conference of the Institute of Communication Ethics

The Institute of Communications Ethics held its annual conference on Friday, 28 October, in London and explored Hackgate and its implications. The papers presented at the Foreign Press Association in the Commonwealth Club reflected the consternation and divided opinions that the scandal has generated within British journalism and the academy.

The discussion coincides with the judicial and public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including its unlawful behaviour headed by the English Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Leveson set up under the 2005 Inquiries Act. According to the Independent, there are now around 200 police detectives engaged in enquiries into alleged press illegality at News International’s News of the World and elsewhere, the work of private detectives, and alleged payments by journalists to police officers.

I was happy to attend an event that I thought more intelligently and effectively explored the key issues in a way that the Leveson enquiry may be unlikely to achieve. I gave a paper entitled ‘Infantilising the Feral Beast: The criminalisation of the bad boys and girls of popular journalism: Hackgate’s boomerang’ and was happily accompanied by three students from Goldsmiths as well as the researcher, Justin Schlosberg, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths working within the Leverhulme Media Research Centre.

Justin presented a compelling paper indicating that British television news had marginalised the representation of the awkward questions being raised about the death of the weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly and the Hutton Enquiry ‘inquest’ verdict that he had died as a result of suicide. This level of textual, qualitative and quantitative research enables us to question shibboleths and preconceived notions about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ journalism.

As I mentioned to my Goldsmiths’ colleagues, conferences of this kind take our opinions and knowledge outside our own comfort zones to be tested by other perspectives as well as being the chance to air our own research and opinions.

The scandal has shaken me over the last few months. Although I had heard the allegations and acknowledged the ‘industrial gossip’ over the years, I had naively and, I accept, stupidly assumed that the new generation of showbusiness/celebrity ‘masters and mistresses of the universe’ in the 1990s through to at least 2007 obtained their ‘intrusive’ stories by persuading friends, associates and employees of the great, the good and the ugly to confidentially whistleblow; however lowly the ‘lowest common denominator’ of subject.

I have an essentially shy and embarrassed anticipation and assumption about asking personal questions and although having been a journalist for several decades, I have never had that ability to whisper and plumb intimate secrets with such apparent panache and success.

Well now it seems some or much of that ’success’ and journalistic pizazz was no more than grubby snooping of targets’ mobile messaging, and possible phone and computer tapping. And other ‘great’ stories may have been obtained by metaphorically passing brown envelopes stuffed with cash to serving police officers. How absurdly pathetic.

It is not even ‘hard’ work’. Journalism for me has hardly been glamorous. Any significant stories I have ever unearthed, if they could ever be described as ’significant’ came about by endless grind and slogging, eyes straining through swirls of microfiche, and pages of documents in badly lit surroundings, working well into the early hours of the morning, waiting forlornly for people to meet me in cold, dreary and banal places, waiting for telephone calls and emails that were never replied to. Most of the work was boring and attended to by anxiety. The adrenaline and rush were so rare, I find it hard to recall any.

And as the mythology is stripped from the high octane, on the edge realm of Hackgate sleaze sleuthing, we are getting a sad and ridiculous picture of some stoned journalists with addiction problems and inadequate personalities, promoted and paid way beyond their talent zone, some snorting cocaine and dropping ‘E’s to keep up with the fringes of celebrocrats who probably had much less talent than they had.

And so the Wizard of Oz is a bald, little man struggling to control levers and the puffing of dry ice behind an illusory light and sound show. We have an almost allegorical myth of the Hackgate Wizard keeping a ledger of mobile phone numbers, pin codes, computer ISP numbers, and an armoury of Trojan computer viruses, and digital video and sound recording software in the warehousing of sneaking and snooping across the highs and lows of human success, failure, and tragedy. Just how typical, widespread and real this myth actually was is a matter for police and judicial enquiry. This degree of journalistic vice, although exceptional, risks being unfortunately misrepresented as the general.

Equally absurd about the Hackgate phenomenon is the vista of the sins of the past visiting and punishing the innocent of the present. Far from being properly condemned as the impulsive vandalism, cynical business move, and destructive censorship by a foreign press baron, Rupert Murdoch’s shutting down of the News of the World was fast hand clapped by Britain’s liberal intelligentsia. The Foreign Secretary William Hague said ’sad, but necessary’ in a live two way from Benghazi. And so George Orwell’s 1946 observation:

It is Sunday afternoon preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World.

is now consigned to an obscure and forgotten footnote of popular cultural history.

In reflecting on the brilliant and fascinating papers given at the conference I have been left wondering whether we might have a choice between modernism as antithetical to censorship and a celebration of the anti-social and the art of the scoundrel and the rascal…and postmodernism: the nihilistic indifference to freedom and a collage of the past to mask the present.

The morning keynote address was provided by Professor Brian Cathcart of Kingston University - also accompanied by a cheerful brood of his students - in which he explored the methodology and modus operandi of developing a professional individual responsibility for journalists through source trailing.

Professor Cathcart is part of the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign and very much an intelligent critic, along with the Media Standards Trust, of journalistic irresponsibility. ‘Hacked Off’, and in particular the Guardian journalist Nick Davies and the solicitor Mark Lewis, ably and courageously fought to challenge the denials, obfuscations and false-consciousness of the country’s media and political establishment who had hoped that the 2006-2007 enquiry, prosecution and conviction of one journalist and one private detective was all that was needed and representative in terms of discretionary policing.

In my opinion Professor Cathcart and his associates cannot be blamed for the problems of boomerang, disproportionate political and legal reaction to this scandal. They must be praised for iconoclastic campaigning, investigative journalism and outstanding legal advocacy.

We cannot forget, as he took an opportunity of reminding us in the afternoon, that Hackgate is not just about super-rich indulgent celebrities having their silly private lives tittled and tattled about. The events include the unlawful interception and manipulation of a child abduction and murder victim, Milly Dowler, the victims of modern day terrorism in London and possibly New York City, and the potential interference and obstruction of a murder enquiry into a man slaughtered in a pub car park in Sydenham whose body was left with an axe embedded in his skull.

Dr. Damien Carney, Principal Lecturer in the School of Law at Portsmouth Business School, constructively discussed methods of improving media accountability through regulation. He emphasised the importance and advantage of actively involving the National Union of Journalists and balancing regulation with media freedom and rights scrutiny and protection.

Sean Dodson, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Leeds Metropolitan University, presented an impressive analysis of the need to develop a relevant and effective self-regulatory code for journalists on the internet. He made some compelling references to codes agreed by US media institutions that seem to be much more progressive and alert to the new world of contemporary multimedia journalistic practice.

He also reminded us that there are many aspects of US journalistic and online culture with much higher and stringent standards of integrity. UK journalists should read the code of ethics for The New York Times and National Public Radio to discover how the US tradition of establishing and maintaining trust between journalists and audience has a longer and more effective trail.

John Mair, chair of ICE, passionately articulated a compelling charge against those responsible for ‘Hackgate’ and a tribute to the warriors shaking News International to its foundations. Rupert Murdoch’s operation as a media magnate between the 20th and 21st centuries, like that of his predecessor press barons, leaves a nasty and ambiguous legacy. Business success and profits have sustained ailing national titles and expanded broadcasting satellite employment and provision.

But the very brakes that a strong trade union presence in mentoring and ethical regulation could have provided were long destroyed and dismantled when he divided and ruled the NUJ chapels of his Fleet Street assets in the middle 1980s to skedaddle to his notorious industrial theme park in Wapping.

Professor John Tulloch, of Lincoln University, was a veritable high and cream tea mid-morning. Lovingly pressing his fingers against anthologies of Charles Dickens’ journalism, John revealed that hacks and coppers have been ‘at it’ from the very beginnings of mass media newspaper publication and modern policing that the creator of Chuzzlewit, Little Nell, Uriah Heap, and Oliver Twist actually campaigned for in the early 19th century.

Professor Tulloch was a cultural and intellectual treat, academic and scholarly nectar, and gave us a little flavour of the riches that undergraduate and postgraduate students at Lincoln must have on a more regular basis.

As he self-effacingly referred to his research as ‘work in progress’ and extemporised with precise and entertaining academic prose Dickens’ role as journalist, magazine editor, and his apparent happy financial investment in Metropolitan Police story provision, he left us with a compassionate entreaty for the tolerance of the journalistic rascal and scoundrel through the ages.

Healthy sandwiches, mineral water, orange juice, coffee and biscuits for lunch were followed by Richard Peppiatt, former reporter for the Daily Star. Richard could have been type-cast as the repentant tabloid hack, but in fact he contributed strongly to the debate with intelligent analysis in the Baudrillard frame of simulacra and his realisation that those working within a tabloid newsroom need greater insight and awareness of the difference between ‘journalism’ and ’story telling’. Both are creative enterprises, but the former needs ethics and responsibility.

Richard is no stranger to Goldsmiths. On his last visit there, he ‘confessed’ to infiltrating the first days of teaching in the history department of the Princess Beatrice as part of his reporting duties for a national ‘newspaper’ covering the country and the world with two or three foot sloggers.

His presentation indicated considerable potential as an academic lecturer. If it is within his personal ambition, I certainly think he deserves a fair run of intelligent journalism at the BBC or a Guardian style media institution.

Jackie Newton, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, and Dr. Sallyanne Duncan, Lecturer in Journalism and Media Ethics at the University of Strathclyde, revealed brilliant research into journalistic use of social media and the relationship between journalists and the bereaved. This is just the kind of information needed at the Leveson inquiry.

They have quietly and professionally explored and researched the practices of regional journalists, who of course, make up the majority of British journalistic publication, and who do not appear to be properly represented at Leveson. What they discovered, and I apologise for simplifying or not comprehensively reflecting the complexity of their study, is that:

1) the bereaved need journalists and appreciate their interest; particularly when most of their suffering is caused by the criminal justice system and not the media;

2) overblown construction and expectation of ‘privacy’ for the bereaved should not result in any self-censorial journalistic avoidance of the bereaved;

3) there is an active contestation and debate about the ethics of using material from social media sites without the permission of bereaved families even though they appear to be public spaces, when in fact they are perceived by many relatives of ‘victims’ to belong to Habermasian ‘intimate space’.

Dr Eamonn O’Neill, Programme Director of the MSc in Investigative Journalism at the University of Strathclyde, explored the complexities of challenging the rule of law when pursuing a public interest that can be supported and confirmed as ‘a greater good’.

It requires professional discipline, strong and supportive editorial and legal supervision, and something I have been advising colleagues and students for many years: the need to protect sources and confidential information through digital safeguarding, counter-surveillance techniques and putting controversial material in a protective shield beyond the British legal jurisdiction.

Dr. O’Neill spoke with authority and referenced some of his own case histories working ‘undercover’ (though in one case he used his own name: it seems nobody bothered to Google him!) exposing a miscarriage of justice and meeting a renegade MI5 agent abroad for the purposes of journalism.

Digital finger-printing can, of course, work both ways. It seems his blog is regularly visited by somebody at the Home Office and he is tempted to increase the boredom level of his postings in anticipation of the apparent surveillance.

David Baines and Joel Stein, of Newcastle University, presented more detailed qualitative and quantitative research into the potential problematical relationship between a regional business daily and the Northern Rock, then a major employer, investor and political and social institution.

As I found when presenting a broadcast business programme many years ago, there was not a lot of scope for ideological questioning of the fruits of capitalism, high profit and short-term banking practices. David and Joel’s exploration of ‘myth-making on the business pages’ reminded everyone that the world’s financial crisis has powerful and compelling dimensions in the local and regional frame of journalism.

The final, and I think, most powerful presentation of the day came from Professor Tim Luckhurst of the University of Kent. He warned convincingly that Leveson and the wider crisis of journalism standards, ethics and illegality risked missing the target and ignoring the prize.

Expensive and invaluable public interest journalism needs a new business model. The present one is failing. What does a nihilistic endgame attack on News International achieve? The Times is kept alive by the Sun. The success of the News of the World and others like it cross-pollinate across the media industry that is dying from new media, the fiduciary drainage of media legal and compliance settlements and many other climate change dimensions in economies of scale and social and media consumption.

‘Don’t imagine,’ said Professor Luckhurst, ‘that the readers of the Daily Star are not perfectly aware of what they are buying and reading. I speak as somebody who went from comprehensive school to Cambridge University and would not for one minute wish to patronise the kind of people who know what is real news and entertaining story telling.’

The debate acknowledged the risk of moral entrepreneurs giving ‘Hackgate’ an importance that was disproportionate to the problems it revealed. A reference was made to the weapons of mass destruction scandal and the Chilcot enquiry. Surely more important? Points and arguments were robustly and respectfully made and then the delightful, award-winning Professor Richard Keeble, continually grabbing my copy of the last edition of the News of the World to highlight the quotation from his beloved George Orwell, got everyone in a circle, distinguished professors included, to reflect on why did Hackgate happen and what is the solution?

Never being one to avoid getting in a last word or two, I piped up: ‘Ego, fear and ambition’ and left it to the other half circle to suggest some reforms and amelioration.
Solutions that do not cut journalism below the knees, as one of my colleagues once graphically described it, are difficult to find. But if there was a consensus emerging, I thought it was the empowerment of the individual journalist’s ‘conscience clause’ in regulation and employment contracts, long campaigned for by the NUJ. It is a low cost and non-punitive popularist option. It has the advantage of confronting the oppression of aggressive and unethical media managements demanding ‘rat-like cunning’ with the ends justifying a doubtful means culture. The battle zone would be employment tribunals.

- The conference was superbly organised by Fiona Thompson and twittered as #ICE2011

A strange animal

Iraq has been the most deadly conflict for journalists ever. Between the American invasion in 2003 and the withdrawal of American forces, 230 journalists and media workers were killed. Unlike in previous conflicts, they have become targets for kidnap and murder.

For a time during the most dangerous period, international journalists stopped going out onto the streets entirely. Reporter Robert Fisk called it ‘hotel journalism’.

Iraq is somewhat safer than it was, but remains very dangerous for reporters. As a consequence, international journalists in an increasing number of areas of conflict have become dependent on locally-hired journalists and fixers to gather news.

This film looks at the way reporters call ’sub-contract’ stories because of risk. We follow reporters in Falluja and Baghdad as they work. And a student blogger in the Kurdish controlled area in the north is killed after writing about corruption in the ruling party.

Please watch the film here:

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