Amazing! My inbox changed again! That hadn’t happened for at least 45 seconds. But this time the email was actually interesting. In the first place, it wasn’t spam and secondly, it concerned a subject of interest to me: journalism. While not a journalist, I’m a writer, and my keen interest came from a close observation of my father, Kevin Whalan, a journalist.
Dad ran his own paper (editor, photographer, etc), edited another paper, was sub-editor for yet another, and ran a regional office for finally another before retiring. By the way, he still remains a journalist, he just works for himself, which is just the way he likes it. As a young man fresh from high school, I considered following him. But fate acted in another way. That should be left to another blog.
Today’s most interesting email was from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Tonight, Tuesday 5th May 2015, they had spare tickets to their Fifth Estate interview series focussed on media and journalism. Tonight’s guest was Nick Davies the author of Hack Attack. His book had uncovered the phone hacking scandal and worse, much worse, perpetrated by News Limited and other Fleet Street papers.
Nick Davies, author of Hack Attack, at the Financial Times Business Book of the Year award 2014 at the V&A
I clicked through, collected and printed my ticket, and at 6:10pm arrived and took my seat at the back.
Nick Davies was introduced. Up until then, I had never heard of him. Yes, I had heard of the phone hacking scandal. That to my mind and heart broke every rule of journalism. But I had no idea of its ongoing impact. Nor had I any idea of the threat journalism now faced.
Davies detailed the other methods used. He noted the extensive use of private investigators which meant that any illegality was borne by them rather than the journalist.
Then he talked about their dark arts. Phone hacking I understood as it was childishly easy. Then he detailed a technique called blagging which is where information is solicited from an organisation by the contact posing as a fellow employee. Much like the uber-hacker Kevin Mitnick I thought.
Davies then expounded on email hacks, burglary, intercepted phone calls and bribing police. I had only heard diluted whispers in the local media. But now it was starting to resemble a Le Carre novel.
This was a scandal that had existed for years and had wended its way through the Royal family and then celebrities and politicians. Even victims of the July 2005 London bombings, the families of injured and killed soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan had been hacked. On the occasions the newspapers were found out, they resorted to threats and of course the handy out of court settlement.
Despite that, the scandal appeared to be a creeping stain without end. But end it did when a murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone was hacked in 2011 and the actress Sienna Miller refused to accept a court settlement.
Then and only then did the newspapers publish. Speeches were made, enquiries followed and laws passed. But I sensed that Davies implied that things really hadn’t changed greatly. Certainly the recent UK election was the result the press wanted.
But what Davies talked about was how the politicians, celebrities, etc. lived in fear. Fear of the media (led by Murdoch and News Limited) exposing their private lives. Fear that the Murdoch media leveraged to get what it wanted: freedom to make money and freedom to operate without too many restraints. Fear that other organisations would be targeted to the point of disintegration (see the relentless attacks on the UK Labour Party much like the campaign against the ALP, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd here in Australia).
And all underpinned by a culture of compliance amongst the editors and journalists employed. Davies stressed that Murdoch was not an interventionist owner, in the tradition of say William Randolph Hearst, but he expected his staff to ensure that the commercial interests of News Limited were paramount. Davies made it clear that Murdoch didn’t operate politically but that he operated commercially. Having heard that my thought was that would disappoint many of Murdoch’s enemies.
But his most telling points were on journalism itself. His initial comments were that Murdoch through the newspaper the Sun had driven journalism down-market. Due to the Sun’s success, others had followed with a corresponding decline. Certainly as the son of a journalist, this accorded with my father’s comments on the profession.
Old fashioned media
He said that journalism was now an intellectually corrupted profession. The main reason was that the internet has broken the business model of the traditional media. The traditional media had responded by cutting back on resources. These included journalists but also foreign correspondents, so-called stringers and photographers (especially Fairfax in Australia).
Now there were fewer journalists required to find and publish more stories. Fact checking and investigation had been set aside due to time constraints. Consequently the publication of outsourced stories and recycled PR material were favoured. As a result, newspapers were more likely to put out stories that were distorted, propaganda or untrue.
He summed up by saying that the public may well say good riddance to bad journalism and end up perceiving journalism as an unethical profession.
From the floor, questions began. The first concerned the rise of online and citizen journalism.
Davies’ response was that through the internet, one can now buy news to suit one’s prejudices, for example, right-wing, Christian, socialist, left-wing, etc. The result now was that anyone can produce crap except for some notables such as Eliot Higgins who determined that Syria was using chemical weapons from satellite and other photographs.
Another question followed on regarding the future of new newspapers. He did state that newspapers ultimately will be electronic as newsprint, ink and distribution would be too expensive.
The final questions concerned what should a person making a career in journalism do? Davies said that there were many good journalists working for bad organisations that were run by executives who cabal beforehand. He reiterated that they relied upon news already published rather than investigative content. He emphasised that the future of journalism required good investigative content such as Higgins and Vice. He suggested finding a good mentor.
With that answer, I left with a sense of disappointment. If anyone worked for a newspaper where the culture was as clear-cut as Murdoch, it would be extraordinarily difficult to find good investigative content even though it is achievable and is occurring. And a mentor?
My misgiving concerned the future of journalism itself. From Davies’ perspective and my own perception, journalism is in mortal danger. Some of the comments from the audience as they were leaving suggested that it was the fault of the Murdoch Empire. But that’s too easy and too glib a reason. Yes Murdoch has made short-term gains and dominates media world-wide. And yes that has created a long-term malaise for and probable demise of journalism as we know it.
But as Davies pointed out earlier, that’s not the only reason. He suggested a new model is needed and it is still evolving via the internet.
The most telling point for me was that with the decline in journalism, people will be only told what they want to hear. It is true that we only choose facts to suit our prejudices but that can only lead to our demise.
It is vital that we are informed without prejudice. It is vital that we find out the unbiased facts. It is vital that we hear what we don’t want to hear or don’t want to know about. Otherwise we cannot learn, we cannot grow and we cannot teach.
That is why journalism cannot be allowed to become comatose and die. That is why a new model is needed.