There have been many casualties in the News International ‘phone hacking’ furore over the last few weeks. From the families of murdered children and relatives of soldiers in Afghanistan, through to politicians and celebrities having their right to privacy and dignity taken away in the most disgusting way. And, whilst few will have much sympathy for Rupert Murdoch, as the noose tightens on his global media empire, there is a great deal of support for the 200 plus News of the World employees who found themselves ruthlessly culled, scapegoats of their management and their unethical standards of journalism deployed by a rogue element.
These are the human faces of the scandal, yet there is another victim, less well documented, but nonetheless an essential part of the fabric of British society. I’m talking about journalism, more specifically, investigative journalism and the role it has to play in supporting the hotly contested subject of what is in the public interest and what constitutes an invasion of privacy. Yes, some associates of the News of the World acted immorally and without a modicum of respect for who they hurt by tapping the phones of innocent people. If guilty, these people crossed a line, using underhand, illegal tactics to gain private and sensitive information to create sensational headlines – this must be stopped. However, let’s not forget that the publication also did a remarkable job of uncovering wrongdoing; outing crooks, drug takers, sex traffickers, corrupt officials and cheating sports people, as well as those abusing their position to the detriment of society. Investigative journalist Maz Mahmood’s brand of ‘legal’ investigative journalism helped convicted hundreds of criminals and forced numerous others from positions of power following wrongdoing. Sure, it also sold millions of newspapers, but it also performed a public service without paying off corrupt police officers or breaking the law. This is journalism serving the public interest at its very best.
It’s a shame that the surge of infotainement or newzak has pushed investigative journalism further and further down the agenda, replaced by cheap celebrity news. Investigations cost money, the newspaper industry is a business and profit margins dictate that filling column inches as cheaply as possible often comes before quality of content, at least for some publications. Yet investigative journalism still has a huge role to play, from regional papers outing local authority corruption to genocide on a mass scale on the other side of the world. Though Twitter and social media are the channels through which this news is being broadcast more and more, the need for skilled investigative journalism to report the facts and go where others dare not go is as great as ever.
So what of the future of investigative journalism? Well, the political attention focusing on newspapers following the revelations will almost certainly lead to tightening of regulations and the Press Complaints Commission flexing its muscles to show it has control. My hope is that one of the last dying arts of journalism is not strangled by those who police and enforce it. There are those who believe the media has too much power, and whilst Murdoch’s stranglehold on the world needed to be checked and put into perspective, there needs to be a degree of balance between avoiding a media monopoly and restricting freedom of speech. The role of the media, stretching back to A Mad World and its People, Khmer Rouge, Watergate and beyond was to expose wrongdoing in the interest of the public and those affected by it – it would be a great shame if legislation restricted the flow of information and ultimately democracy.