Friday, July 8, 2011

Murder on Fleet Street

Last month I was surprised to find money credited by News International into my bank account. I had not written for the News of the World (NoW) for two years and did not understand why I received any payments now. I thought it was a mistake. I wrote to NoW and was told that the auditors must have just discovered they underpaid me then and are making it up now. Little did I know then, that in less than a month the paper will be no more.

I told my husband who joked, ‘Perhaps they tapped my phone back then and were paying me compensation’. We laughed. NoW and the phone hacking scandal were synonymous. But as long as they tapped phones of celebrities and people in power, not many cared (apart from the celebs and the suits of course, who had the money and the means to take the paper to court and get large compensation!).

My association with NoW was very brief. The interviews I did for NoW were all recorded with the subject's consent and left no room for any sleeze or scandal. Yes, I am justifying myself simply because any association with NoW now puts your credibility as a journalist under the scanner. In fact I was asked why I want to even mention that I ever did anything for the paper. I was a freelancer, so I wasn't even within the vast periphery of the paper's gambit, imagine what the NoW staff would be feeling. Reporters who had absolutely no inkling about any hacking will also now be looked upon with suspicion.
The Guardian’s recent expose of how the NoW’s hired detective used subterfuge to hack onto phones of unsuspecting civilians including a murdered teenager Milly Dowler shocked everyone. It created a huge public outrage and not without reason.

Revelations that murdered teenagers’ or families of victims of terror attacks were also targeted in the paper’s quest to dig up sleaze is incorrigible. More than 4000 such victims, the cops said. What were they hoping to get? A distraught aging father cursing the transport secretary for not investing in bomb proof trains?  Or a wife telling her lover that with the husband dead now, they were free to elope? It’s pathetic!

And where is the public interest in whose name newspapers often indulge in subterfuge? Although not a strong advocate of subterfuge myself as a journalist, I understand that sometimes it is important to resort to it to dig up information and facts not easily available in public domain which are important for the public to know. There is a thin line and editorial ethics play an important role in where you draw the line. But there is no doubt that NoW crossed that line.

Peter Burden asked a very good question in his book, News of the World: Fake Sheikhs and Royal Trapping, “Are the tabloids' pious protestations of public interest really just a self-serving attempt to halt declining circulation?”

NoW boasts of the highest circulation of any newspaper on Sundays. Unfortunately this tarnished tabloid will print its final edition this Sunday, July 10, 2011. So a newspaper known for ground breaking stories, though not often devoid of controversy, has decided to pull down the shutters. Was it necessary? Will it only re emerge as the Sun on Sunday and print it's old grit again?

And its unfair to the 250 odd staff facing the threat of redundancy who could have not been privy to NoW phone hacking scandal that operated on a much higher level. Yet Rebekah Brooks stays and James Murdoch still wears an innocent face.

The paper has been brutally murdered by its bosses. And it's blood will leave a huge blot on Fleet Street. Although almost all newspaper offices have over the years moved to different locations, Fleet Street will always be synonymous with the press in London.

I don't think ceasing to publish NoW is a solution. What is required was a revamp of editorial standards, to repent and learn from its mistakes. NoW didn’t have to die. It could re-invent itself on principles of good journalism, change its editorial board to include people with character and ethics and more importantly scrutinize the sources and contents of its news reports. 

It’s not difficult to hack into people’s phones. Mumbai Mirror, a tabloid I also worked for in India, used a small time detective to hack into a prominent lawyer’s phone in less than 60 seconds. They could eavesdrop on every conversation the lawyer had and also read his text messages.  

So how are they different? They first took the lawyer’s permission before they got the detective to hack into his phone without the detective’s knowledge of course. Then they published an expose on how easy it was to tap someone’s phone on their front page giving details of the entire operation. They exposed the hacker.

Instead of publishing an expose on phone tapping, Mirror could have used it themselves to eavesdrop on conversations of celebrities, politicians, police or even the victims of brutal murders or terror attacks - we have them all in Mumbai. It could have given some great sleaze and gossip for any tabloid. It could boost circulation many folds.

But the paper didn’t resort to such unethical sleaze. It did what any good journalist/editor would do. It exposed the wrong doings and alerted the public on how easy it was for some to tap into their phones, forcing the police to find the culprits and find ways of preventing such crime. No wonder, Mirror is the best tabloid in Mumbai for investigative reporting and has a high circulation.

Good ethical journalism is all about the choices we as journalists and editors make. 

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