Power Corrupts. Even the Fourth.

By: /
July 21, 2011

Politicians and journalists across the world are closely following the numerous turns in the phone-hacking scandal in England. The story is fascinating, involving, as it does, billionaires, prime ministers, private detectives, and … a pie-thrower. More importantly, though, these events have revealed how sick the media culture has become in the land of William and Kate. Compared to their English colleagues, Canadian journalists are altar boys. Still, there are lessons to be learned from the plunge into the sewers that some of the English media have taken.

The U.K. press, characterized by the unsurpassed popularity of the tabloids, has always been unique. In our country, reporters are their own detectives. Their editors and the companies’ lawyers make sure that they do nothing illegal while gathering information. In contrast, it seems that British dailies frequently hire private detectives to do the dirty work for them. At News of the World, these detectives routinely listened in on phone conversations and hacked voice mails. The judicial inquiry that Prime Minister David Cameron announced will tell if NoW’s competitors engaged in the same illegal and immoral practices.

What has been exposed thus far confirms that all forms of power may corrupt – even the power of the press. If a news organization is convinced that its investigations are of crucial importance to the public interest (which most are), and, moreover, if such an organization evolves in an extremely competitive environment, it may be tempted to cut corners. That rarely – if ever –happens in Canadian newsrooms. Still, we should remain aware of the risk.

Notwithstanding their apologies in front of a House of Commons committee, the Murdochs (father and son) and Rebekah Brooks had obviously decided long ago that the risk was worthwhile. At best, as LibDem MP Adrian Sanders explained to a visibly uncomfortable James Murdoch, they were guilty of “wilful blindness,” a legal term that states that if there is knowledge that you could have had and should have had, but chose not to have, you are still responsible.

During an emergency debate in Parliament on Wednesday, David Cameron expressed concern that some media group may have become too influential. “Above all,” he said, “we need to ensure that no one voice, not News Corporation, not the BBC, becomes too powerful.” Coming from a prime minister who, a few weeks ago, was more than willing to let Rupert Murdoch buy all of satellite broadcaster BskyB, that comment is surprising, to say the least.

In and of itself, media convergence is neither bad nor good. It depends how much news and opinion diversity remains. It also depends on what the owner of a given media conglomerate wants to achieve. Concentration can allow for cost sharing and large investments that improve the overall quality of the news produced. But if an owner uses its newspapers and television stations for the sole purpose of yielding political influence, concentration leads to distortion; to propaganda.

The solution to problems that may flow from press concentration does not reside in government intervention, for obvious reasons. Press councils, like those that exist in most Canadian provinces and in the U.K., are much better suited to oversee the media’s activities. However, these councils should be given the means to properly investigate the complaints they receive – means that they presently lack. Besides, membership to such councils should be mandatory, so that no media can escape this check on possible abuses. (However, it should be noted that the British Press Complaints Commission, when it investigated the practices of News of the World in 2009, found no proof of widespread phone-hacking…)

In all this, we should not forget that, while a few journalists and their bosses may sometimes act irresponsibly, overall, the press fulfils its duty and thereby plays a crucial role in democracies. The News of the World scandal is another illustration of that: It is thanks to the tireless work of Guardian reporter Nick Davies that the phone-hacking affair was uncovered.

Photo courtesy Reuters.