The British model of journalism was exported across the oceans to America, India and elsewhere in the heydays of the empire and has long been held as a benchmark in the English-speaking world, but it is now in the news more for its ‘dark arts’ symbolised in the phone-hacking scandal than for high quality.
The scandal blew the lid not only the ‘too cosy’ relationship between influential sections of the press, police and politicians in Britain, but also on at least six other dubious ways by which information is secured to be used in sensational headlines, particularly in sensational mass circulation tabloids.
Last week’s conviction of Andy Coulson partly concludes one of the many trials related to the scandal, which has affected individuals, practices and working cultures across professions and sectors.
Several police investigations are yet to conclude, while it is still not yet clear what shape regulation will take as the government and industry wrangle on an industry body or a royal charter. Phone-hacking victims who formed the ‘Hacked Off’ group insist on a more accountable press.
The scandal refers to the systematic hacking of phones belonging to politicians, celebrities, members of the public and event the police, but it is about much more than the unlawful intercepts of voicemails. It is also about illegal payments made to police officials, attempts to pervert the course of justice and exert undue influence by media barons over politicians.
In a society where individual privacy is considered paramount, personal details such as phone numbers are closely guarded, which makes the contact details of celebrities crucial to access them for information.
The six dark arts that came to public notice as the scandal unfolded are: hacking of phones to access messages in voicemail, hacking computers to access personal data, ‘blagging’, ‘pinging’, bribing policemen for information, and simply rummaging through dustbins for scraps of paper with information about residents.
At the height of the scandal on 2011, former prime minister Gordon Brown accused the Rupert Murdoch-owned News International of using such ‘techniques’ on an ‘industrial scale’. But the scandal had a longer history.
In 2006, the information commissioner had revealed that over 300 journalists from 32 publications had obtained over 3,000 items of personal information by illegal means from one private investigator alone.
As long as the targets were celebrities, the cosy but unhealthy relationship between press, politics and the police in British public life remained undisturbed for years.
The police have now issued new guidelines on dealing to journalists. So was the practice of ‘chequebook journalism’ — the practice of paying for information, interviews or exclusive access — in an intensely competitive and profit-driven environment. This practice involved hiring private investigators for information.
But public revulsion welled up and everything hit the ceiling in 2011 when it was revealed that the targets included Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager whose case was widely covered, and family members of dead British soldiers.
According to Labour leader Ed Milband, relations between media barons and top politicians had become “too close” in Britain, where successive prime ministers and others have supped with Murdoch ever since he bought the ‘News of the World’ in 1968, ‘The Sun’ in 1969, ‘The Times’ and ‘The Sunday Times’ in 1981.