Journalistic ethics prescribe respect for the private lives of individuals, except when the private lives of public figures impinge on their office. These principles were totally neglected in the way News Of The World went after scoops. As a result, the Fourth Estate is shaking and journalism may be facing an existential crisis, Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire is under unprecedented pressure, the British political establishment is in disarray and we have seen key resignations in the Metropolitan police.
The world awaits Murdoch’s public hearings, news-gathering techniques are now under scrutiny. These hearings are likely to increase public mistrust in the media and the political class. Although, we hope that the invasive tactics of News Of The World are limited to that newspaper, journalists are asking how far they are we willing to go to dig market-oriented stories that increase readerships, bring adverts, bigger profits and wider influence. This scandal is not merely about professional conduct but also throws light on the struggles faced by the media to keep afloat in a cutthroat commercial reality.
The current tsunami that started in the United Kingdom stirred waves that are now spreading across the globe. It is sending alarm signals for us in the Maltese islands too. In the past two decades we slowly experienced steady commercialisation at the cost public interest. Although we do not have intrusive paparazzi, there were some attempts to start tabloid style reportage; we have seen an independent production company employing a private investigator. Technologies to penetrate communications have long existed in the Maltese islands. While police and hospital sources have long been important for journalists, on the beat we all know instances when journalists arrive on a crime scene or accident spot before the ambulance and the police. Yet up to now, we never questioned how this happens and its potential ethical implications.
Maltese journalists have had a Code of Ethics since 1989. This Code is currently in the process of being revised and the draft will be discussed among editors and journalists in consultation meetings organised by the Institute of Journalists later this month. The Institute of Maltese Journalists is also inviting members of the public to send their feedback as it is deemed that consumers are important stakeholders.
It now appears that the journalists need to work to strengthen their professional body. That Media Ethics Commission also needs to be revamped and to be given self-regulatory powers and resources by Parliament to be able to operate autonomously and effectively. Up to now the Media Ethics Commission has been unable to enforce sanctions against individuals or organisations that breach the Code of Ethics. There are a number of models we may wish to look at and as Parliament is now consulting the various stakeholders on media law amendments, this is one issue it needs to take up. While the current UK scandal has pointed out some limitations of a self-regulatory body; it has also shown that without its existence the situation might have been much worse than it is now.
This scandal has also turned the limelight on the relationship between the politicians and the media. Murdoch’s newspapers were deemed to have wide influence over public opinion. The magnate considered his media as his personal fiefdom and his biographies documented how he changed his editors “as often as he changed his socks”.
Alastair Campbell’s Diaries document how Murdoch summoned his editors to Australia and in a meeting in the presence of Tony Blair, he instructed them to give their vital support to the Labour Party, prior to the 1997 election. It is also known that towards the end of Blair’s premiership, Murdoch sent very clear signals that he did not want Gordon Brown, whom he did not deem fit for No 10. Politicians stand a better chance to be elected when they have the support of media power brokers.
The Anglo-American scenario is much more media-driven than in Malta, and it was thus not surprising that in the UK one Prime Minister after another picked seasoned tabloid journalists for the role of Communicators Director or Press Secretary. These professional political insiders do not keep the channel of communication open but they also spin the web on behalf of their masters. While there were moments when Alastair Campbell became an embarrassment to his prime minister, as revealed during the Hutton enquiry, nothing matches the current embarrassment caused to Cameron by his former communications director Andy Coulson. While many politicians believed that ‘perception is reality’, it is now increasingly apparent that perception management must be back by substantive politics if they wish to remain credible.
The Maltese scenario is known for the long-existing incestuous relationship between media and politics. Political parties own media outlets and these compete for audiences with commercial organisations. High-profile party journalists who become political bloodhounds easily slide into partisan public relations posts, when so required by their party structures or government.
Many loyal journalists who had worked for the media of the ruling party were appointed as communication officers with government ministries. Maltese politicians have also resorted to news management tactics and spin to influence the agendas of the non-partisan media. Some favourable members of the non-partisan press were rewarded with consultancies or high profile public posts after proving their loyalty.
We have a lot to learn from this scandal that has rocked the credibility of institutions. While the credibility of politicians in many democracies is at an all time low; trust in media organisations received a severe blow. Media organisations have a dire need to engage in some soul searching and, to be honest, shaking old arrangements is not be a bad thing at all.