Can journalism ever claim to work in the public interest, post Leveson Inquiry?

Lawrence Serewicz on how the press is now longer an objective news-reporting agency working in the public interest - it's now a vehicle for political influence, and on why we face a fundamental question as a democratic society when a news organisation acts like a domestic surveillance organisation

Rebekah Brooks

The phone hacking scandal has revealed some painful truths about Murdoch’s media empire.  Those truths are uncomfortable for what they reveal about the relationship between the press and politicians.  The truth that is the most painful for democracy and the public is the fallacy of a free press working in the public interest. Rupert Murdoch’s testimony showed that his media empire was less a news organisation and more a political influence machine.  As he said, his interests and the interests of his papers never diverged. There is no public interest; there is only his interest.  Through this statement, we also understand what Rebekah Brooks (and Andy Coulson) were doing through News of the World.  What they did at a national level, with News of the World, he was doing at an international level with News International.  According to former employees, Coulson, but Brooks in particular, used stories to build leverage with other influence people.  The stories were only pursued, or dropped, to create a leverage point for greater influence or something else.   As former editors have stated, Murdoch had regular influence and contact regarding stories, ideas, and issues.  They, in turn, will have understood his wishes and acted to fulfil them.  In this process, the papers were, and continue to be, political levers to further his interests.

The culture that Rebekah Brooks cultivated at News of the World reflected the wider culture of News International regarding the political influence.  We can see the same style and techniques with another Murdoch outlet: Fox News. At Fox News, Roger Ailes’s has demonstrated a Murdoch inspired approach. He has the same sensationalism, the same secrecy, the same fear and loathing within the workplace, but most importantly of all, the same use of news as political instrument.  The key difference is that Ailes is a superior newsman and political operative than Rebekah Brooks. I do not mean that as a slight to Mrs Brooks.  Instead, it helps explain why the illegal methods do not appear to have transferred across.  As a Murdoch himself stated, disingenuously, phone hacking was lazy journalism. Despite the differences, Ailes and Brooks share the underlying approach that Rupert Murdoch wants from his organisation.   The news has become important than political influence.  What the Leveson Inquiry has allowed us to do is see how that influence works and what it has achieved.

News of the World final edition

Murdoch’s News of the World was an extreme example of the trend to make media firms as vehicles for political leverage and influence.

Is political influence more important than money?

Murdoch’s influence has transformed the media in the UK and potentially globally.  What we can see is that the press is now longer an objective news-reporting agency working in the public interest.  It is more than a business.  It is more than advocacy journalism.  It is now a vehicle for political influence.  Murdoch’s News of the World was an extreme example of the trend to make media firms as vehicles for political leverage and influence.  As long as there have been newspapers, editors and proprietors have had a political influence.  The influence can range from endorsing a candidate in an election to editorialising against a particular policy or proposal.  In this role, it was acting in a public interest to act as a check on the government and public official.  However, that role, no matter how public spirited was always a secondary effect from their primary aim of reporting the news and making money from selling their newspapers.  What Murdoch has done is take that process to the next level. Instead of selling newspapers or making money, he was selling and obtaining political influence.  He was not interested in the public interest. He was interested in what furthered his own interest.

Tom Watson Leveson

As Neville Thurbeck explained to Tom Watson, reporters were ordered to investigate him and other opponents to News of the World in the phone-hacking scandal.

The public interest or Murdoch’s interest?

The danger is not bias within the news. Instead, it is that the news was a proxy to find information that could be used for political or professional leverage.  In this task, the journalists become operatives to extract or obtain information.  The methods stopped being those of a journalist and became more like an intelligence service.  As Neville Thurbeck explained to Tom Watson, reporters were ordered to investigate him and other opponents to News of the World in the phone-hacking scandal.   The reporters and investigators were not working to obtain information in the public interest.  They were to find any dirt or information that could be turned to into leverage over the paper’s opponents.  The information gathered in this way could be provided to others in exchange for political influence with politicians. Given the recent revelations, Thurbeck’s story is not surprising.  What is surprising, though, is how easily and willingly the reporters stopped being reporters, acting in the putative public interest, and started acting as covert agents for a corporate master. They did not question it, they did not resign. They, and those directing them, accepted it.  They did it as a normal situation within News of the World.  In this activity, they were demonstrating what they had always been doing, but no one had revealed.  They were not acting as news reporters, or journalists, working in the public interest. They were acting as agents of Rupert Murdoch working to promote and defend his interests and the interests of his organisation.

Digital Privacy Surveillance

We face a fundamental question as democratic society when a news organisation acts like a domestic surveillance organisation.

A news organisation or a surveillance organisation?

We face a fundamental question as democratic society when a news organisation acts like a domestic surveillance organisation.  Are we ready to accept the political and social consequences? News of the World under Brooks and Coulson, and by extension Murdoch, was neither politically nor democratically accountable.  Is this the role of the press in a democratic society?  By contrast, the security services are strictly regulated by statute. They can only collect information in line with the Security Services Act of 1989 and 1996.  Yet, what regulates the press in these matters?  How does the public interest justify the decision to put politicians and corporate opponents under surveillance?

Andy Coulson

What does it say about David Cameron’s judgement when he employed Andy Coulson?

Political influence reflects political judgement: who has it?

What does it say about David Cameron’s judgement when he employed Andy Coulson?  He was Cameron’s director of communication because of his skill as the editor of the News of the World.  The same skills that served him well as editor were those he brought to his role at the heart of a democratic government.  At the same time, the decision to hire Andy Coulson and to continue to court Rupert Murdoch shows us how political influence works.  Murdoch’s methods succeeded. Information was obtained for political leverage and opponents put under surveillance may be acceptable outside the public sphere.  When such methods are come into the political realm, it raises questions about the democratic mandate.   Can we have a democratic mandate when politicians or political opponents of the government fear political blackmail based upon what unregulated reporters can discover?  If news organizations might be used as a proxy as a source of information on political opponents, how does that serve the public interest.

What is journalism’s future if it cannot claim to work in the public interest?

Murdoch’s efforts have transformed news from a public interest activity to one that seeks out and distributes political influence.  The problem is that news organisations cannot escape Murdoch’s taint. In a democratic society, we rely upon the press to act as a check on political power by acting in the public interest. The press are granted great freedom because they rely upon and justify their actions by the public interest.  Yet, what remains of the public interest when we realize that Murdoch runs his news organisation for his interests?  Can we accept the public interest argument from any newspaper?  The issue is beyond the potential for bias.  Instead, it is the fundamental purpose of journalism.  Can it ever be believed that it works in the public interest?  This will be Murdoch’s legacy.