Media Ethics: How the mighty fall – and how we love reading about it

I have been following the recent Leveson Inquiry into media ethics and the role of the police in the ‘phone-hacking’ events. Here’s the background info:

The Prime Minister announced a two-part inquiry investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal, on 13 July 2011.

I have been following the recent Leveson Inquiry into media ethics and the role of the police in the ‘phone-hacking’ events. Here’s the background info:

The Prime Minister announced a two-part inquiry investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal, on 13 July 2011.

Lord Justice Leveson was appointed as Chairman of the Inquiry.  The first part will examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media. In particular, Lord Justice Leveson will examine the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians.  He is assisted by a panel of six independent assessors with expertise in key issues being considered by the Inquiry.

The Inquiry has been established under the Inquiries Act 2005 and has the power to summon witnesses.  It is expected that a range of witnesses, including newspaper reporters, management, proprietors, policemen and politicians of all parties will give evidence under oath and in public.

It will make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards.

After the ‘phone-hacking’ and use of private detectives by the now defunct News of the World newspaper, the inquiry was set up to investigate other cases of  media intrusion and possible police collusion. Notable celebrities have been telling their stories of shady characters intruding into their privacy, bribing friends or colleagues for juicy gossip, or hiding in bushes with long-range lenses for that saucy snap.

People who are famous got to be that way with the help of media exposure. So when it helps them become loved by the public, they love the media. When it reveals too much, or shares unhelpful details of their personal life, or acquires stories by unscrupulous means, they hate it. The newspapers, on the other hand, and their happy-snappy camera people, say that it is ‘in the public interest’ for their readers to be able to read about the latest goings-on in the world of the rich and famous.

Having helped to create someone’s fame, so to speak, the newspapers often feel they have a right in creating their infamy, too. Thus, like all things in the material world, there is an ‘arc of fame,’ from the time a person does something outstandingly well in sport, politics or entertainment, and attracts favourable attention; right through to the time when they do something wrong and come crashing down in the eyes of the public. Newspapers help to establish both fame and infamy, they know that, and so they feel a certain power over an individual – especially someone they’ve helped.

The News of the World did a lot of good in its time, no doubt. The newspaper exposed dodgy politicians, scandalous clergy, bent coppers, and all manner of crooks, from pound-pinching swindlers to paedophiles – all were named and shamed by the newspaper in its long history. More than anything, it was probably that public service which made them feel invincible and which made them feel they could cross a line of moral propriety. They knew the public liked them because of their crusades against injustice. Even the police were on their side.

And that was the problem. Although the facts are still murky and no-one wants to own up, the police would share certain stories with the paper, and the paper would follow them up with their own hired private detectives. A powerful crime-fighting combination. Only it wasn’t a legal combination, and that was the problem. Newspapers operate for profit and the police force must never be in collusion with media, government or church. So when it became known that those same private eyes were spying on the rich and famous – for no other reason than salacious gossip – the newspaper became unstuck. Indeed, it wasn’t even anyone rich and famous that finished them off in the end; it was the hacking of a young girl’s phone, a young girl who had been murdered. This one incident was enough to disgust the very same public, and as more details of other nastiness became known the newspaper curved through its own arc of fame, crashed, and closed its doors forever.

The revelations of just how far the News of the World had gone in its quest for stories, faked or otherwise, became the news for other newspapers, and then it was discovered those other, more respectable papers, had also been involved in illegal news-gathering. The accusations and counter-accusations became an almost daily occurrence and the story ran and ran. Somewhere along the line, the very subject of the ethics by which media ran its business became the essence of the discussion. Shrinking sales figures due to internet news provision had caused newspapers to take desperate risks in their bid to attract readers. And while printing unsubstantiated stories with no supporting facts, and creating stories entirely from imagination are not unusual practises, the desperate newspapers had gone to even greater lengths to provide ‘news in the public interest.’

That was essentially the issue. The public liked to read not only about the great and the good, but also how the great and good aren’t actually that great or good in real life. Stories about the actress found in bed with the bishop, or the politician found hunting men on Clapham Common, or the eccentric behaviour of the aristocracy – all titillated the readers and sold newspapers. Unfortunately the great British public just loves a good scandal, particularly when it involves someone slipping on a banana skin – or the social, political, moral or financial equivalent.

Somehow, discovering that people who are ‘better’ than us, richer than us, more famous than us; or just cleverer than us, are actually worse than us in real terms – is very reassuring. It makes us feel not so bad about our under-achievement or our relative lack of fame or education. We shouldn’t really be insecure, but we are, and we need to feel safe about who and where we are. Journalists know this and shamelessly prey on it, writing stories in just the right way to capture our attention and give us that warm fuzziness. And by buying the papers we pay them to do that. So in the great debate about media ethics, we should also look within – because our choices helped to create the ethical dilemma.