The pileup of negative adjectives describing the misbehavior at News of the World, until recently one of News Corp.’s leading tabloids in the U.K., could stretch toward infinity: horrible, lamentable, unforgivable, execrable.
The Milly Dowler debacle, the Gordon Brown privacy invasions, the bribes and threats and dirty tricks and, of course, the garden-variety eavesdropping. An accounting of the misdeeds can be found at news media outlets throughout the English-speaking world. The most charitable soul would be hard-pressed to condone an ounce of it. Indicting the tabloid and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, and his company isn’t particularly hard, nor is it enlightening. What happened was wrong, inexcusable and possibly criminal.
So where does that leave us?
Murdoch and his news organs dished it out; it’s their turn now. But there’s an element to the news coverage that’s gone missing: self-reflection. There is a belief that these sins belonged to Murdoch tabloids alone -- and that’s a blind spot, for ethical violations are far easier to perpetrate and tolerate than one might think.
The News’s sins were epic, but hiding in their giant shadow are other, less-remarked upon transgressions. Journalists at some of the “better” newspapers and magazines have been known, for instance, to take an off-the-record comment and put it on the record. They have trespassed on private property, resisted correcting mistakes, made stuff up. Quotes have been trimmed to seem just a bit more delicious, or inflammatory. Statistics that fail to support a case have been conveniently left off the page.
This goes beyond the timeless Janet Malcolm formulation -- the journalist as enemy/outsider who betrays his or her subject. This is clear rule-breaking, vastly less serious than the systematic News of the World breaches, but in the same family of deceit.
It’s also worth noting that the tabloid behavior has been evident for some time. Somehow, though, British politicians managed to look the other way when it seemed to serve their purposes. And readers -- those of us who bought the newspapers and consumed the news -- managed to do the same when only starlets and royals were hacked, though it seems reasonable to believe that they’re entitled to the same right to privacy as the rest of us.
The punishment of News Corp. is unfolding. News of the World has been shuttered; the corporation has been forced to delay its proposed takeover of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc, the satellite broadcast giant; investigations are ongoing and could spread to all of British tabloid-dom, including newspapers that are not owned by Murdoch. The story is important and deserves scrutiny, including by News Corp., whose coverage to this point can best be described as wan. But it wouldn’t hurt if that scrutiny were tinged with a small dose of self-reflection.
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