Today in Parliament - Time to get Hackgate into perspective

So the Spanish Inquisition that was today's Parliamentary Inquiry did not end in blood letting, dramatic revelations or anything significantly new. The highlight was provided by some lesser known 'comedian' and Wendi Deng's swift defence of her husband. How someone was allowed into the committee room armed with a can of shaving foam when one can't bord a plane with a bottle of water is another awkward question for the police but with Deng on hand there is perhaps evidence that camp Murdoch are able to self-police.

Aside from Rupert Murdoch's close shave with shaving foam, the nearly three hour session of questioning did not provide anything incriminating. The various media reports have presented the questions and answers in different ways and suggested Murdoch senior was being senior but an objective analysis would have to conclude that what we witnessed today was the two most senior executives of a global company answering questions about what went on in one corner of their empire. Were they directly responsible for the goings-on and contol over them? - no. Should they, in the circumstances have been better briefed/had more answers? - yes - given the questions they knew they were likely to be asked it would have been slicker of their PR machine to have equiped them with more detail for answers.

The suggestion that Rupert or indeed James Murdoch would know or should have known what went on in one newsroom out of their entire business empire is unrealistic. The way the hackgate coverage and inquisition is being presented is that it would be the Murdochs who took a policy decision to require all their staff to hack phones. In actual fact they were running a global corporation the purpose of which was to make money. While - as those in charge of the ship - or 'on the bridge' as it was referred to today - to which Rupert Murdoch commented it was a very big bridge - they have ultimate responsibility for that corporation, the fact is, as they reminded (or were advised to position) today was that the News of the World was a very small part of the overall company's business interests.

While it does seem plausible that the Murdochs might not have known or should not be castigated for not knowing the detail of what went on in the newsrooms their company controlled, the plausibility and therefore credibility of that argument lessens the closer one gets to these newsrooms and those responsible for them. While we've had reference to and misquote of Piers Morgan from his book 'the Insider' in the questioning today, if one looks at Mazher Mahmood's book 'Confessions of a Fake Sheik' (at p.285 paragraph 1) there is reference to Andy Coulson's reaction to paying a model hooker $60,000 - "Andy was among the finest editors I worked with. He had great judgement and above all was fearless, with an in-built streak of mischief. He was always willing to take a punt and most times they came off." - which seems reasonable at one level but the point at issue here is that (1) you don't get scoops and stories (that sell) by being fearful and not taking a punt and (2) journalism is about / involves probing, testing and playing at the boundary.

The question is - to what extent can it be argued, suggested, proved that News International management prescribed how journalists and editors within constituent titles or broadcasters should conduct themselves? - can one realistically argue (as some have - though not realistically or credibly) that a Rupert or James Murdoch would issue a memo to all staff that they shall hack to get headlines? - of course not!

Where does this get us? - well somewhere between the earlier conclusions (supported by the previous investigations both external and internal through Harbottles - who will be regretting the day they took on that instruction!) that the whole hacking affair was the work fo some rogue elements and the current feverish suggestion that hacking is an endemic, systemic and integral part of the wider corporate strategy of News International. So could it be that the hacking is indeed confined to a select collection of individuals BUT more widespread than previously uncovered or conetmplated OR is it indeed practised by a wider spread of the journalistic community than previously acknowledged? It does seem surprising that the likes of Coulson or Brooks would not have known that there were certain investigative practices and payments involved in / relating to the gathering of information to stand up the scoops and stories that made the top selling headlines. They might not have known the detail but they must have known or at very least appreciated there would be some detail and dealings behind the scenes to secure such headlines.

To the extent one can accept that Murdoch senior and junior might not have full knowledge of how the headlines that sold their newspaper interests were achieved, this seems less likely when it comes to the editors. In terms of both the News Corporation code of ethics (referred to during today's session) and the regulatory codes in the UK, editors have ultimate responsibility for that which they choose to include in their publications and broadcasts. They also have responsiblity for satisfying themselves as to the context and manner in which the information/evidence that has been obtained to stand up the stories is compliant with both regulatory codes and the law. So whichever way one cuts it, a Coulson or a Brooks had ultimate responsibility over the stories they published AND the manner in which the material forming those stories was obtained is relevant to the decision whether to use it. They may claim ignorance but the difference between their ignorance and that of the Murdochs is that the Murdochs have a reasonable explanation and excuse while ignorance on the part of a Coulson or a Brooks is of itself an arguable breach of their duty as editor.

So Murdoch has been humbled, narrowly missed getting a shaving foam pie in his face but has explained why he would not know what reporters and their sources would be doing on a day to day basis. He has - emotionally it would seem - said that he has been let down or betrayed by those he trusted. SO the question is in whom did he place that trust, who was responsible and who can be shown to have known the answers to the questions both Rupert and James Murdoch were unable to answer today and previously.

The Murdochs might have got dirty and become stained by the hackgate affair but Mediabeak would suggest they will be able to cleanse themselves and their reputation as they distance themselves from the real dirt that must and does lie beneath. The list of casualties will grow but politicians from all parties as well as different levels of police are as complicit in being party to the rot that has seeped through the democratic process. The various parties have lost sight of their duty and place in that process and chased the status, opportunity and power that media coverage and perception can bring. But all of this comes at a price and it is one that needs to be collectively recognised and paid.


Hacking: when the hunters become the hunted

On the eve of the blood-letting that will be attempted in Parliament tomorrow there is no let-up in the momentum of mud-slinging by politicians trading outrage over what was a phone hacking scandal but has now become a melting-pot for the credibility of both press and police.

Before examining the public outrage over the revelations that cops can be complicit in aiding the media agenda (sometimes for gain) Mediabeak first wants to give the slippery politicians a booting - we will witness even more outrage in the questioning of the Murdochs and Brooks tomorrow - but while Milliband gets all militant on Cameron and various MPs seek to walk on higher moral plains they are all at fault for it is they who are responsible for running the country and presiding over legislation and have - as ever - been too embroiled in point scoring and bickering in a pathetic outdated feudal debating chamber to grasp the proverbial nettle of balancing the laws and regulation required to both protect but also prescribe how the media should operate within its remit as part of the democratic process in our society.

Successive governments have kept at arms length from seeking to introduce new media laws or regulation and they have ALL cosied up to and sought patronage from those who they thought could secure them the positive headlines they sought to inflate their achievements and mask their mistakes. So politicians beware, jump on the media-bashing bandwagon today and your ghosts will come back to haunt you tomorrow.

Moving on to journalists and this evening's news that whistleblower Sean Hoare has sadly demised somehow seems as tragic as it does convenient - question being on whose part. Is he the media equivalent of weapons of mass destruction expert Dr David Kelly? - well the press or the police wouldn't have wanted or profited from Kelly's demise...

So while the police cut their losses and resign the politicians are still obnoxiously trying to blame everyone else but what is being lost in the media bashing - (and to the extent one might not be fans of News Corporation it would - Mediabeak suggests - be a foolish journalist who thinks they can join in the bashing with clear conscience that no other media outlet could possibly have skeletons in the cupboard in relation to obtaining information) - is that the media would not be in business if (1) they were not delivering stories the public would read and buy papers or tune in their TV sets for and (2) there was the material (however obtained and verified - which IS the key issue here) to back up or create such stories.

So the key question is - how far do media consumers think it is acceptable for their product providers to go to deliver the entertainment that makes up their front pages and programmes? AND to what extent is this supported and provided for in the laws and regulation that underpins this. The media don't make the laws nor do they initiate the stories so what is lacking in the wider debate and the cross examination we will witness in the grand-standing in Parliament tomorrow is the acknowledgement and honest admission by all those involved that everyone is in their own way complicit.

So while the focus may be that journalism is in crisis and News International has been running amok it may at the end of the day be too facile to pick on the obvious tabloid target. If one looks at legal actions over the past decade they do not solely focus or feature the News of the World. As commercial entities demanding return on investment from stories it should come as no surprise that 'responsible journalism' is being replaced by sensationalistic headlines and reporting. People, notably celebrities, increasingly claim that their privacy is being invaded. The number of successful defamation actions brought against the press continues and successive Attorney Generals find it necessary to issue repeated cautions to the press when it comes to contempt. The public are buying less papers, yet people are demanding more news. So what has gone wrong and whose fault is it?

Well to some the answer is clear - its the News of the World - but it was only about five years ago that it was that Piers Morgan chappy whose exposee of Naomi Campbell and later use of allegedly‘fake’ torture pictures brought the Mirror into disrepute and who was held out as public enemy number 1 - did we ever find out beyond reasonable doubt that Morgan’s pictures were fake or staged? The issue they exposed was very real and one year on we saw soldiers court martialed for the crimes they exposed.

It’s very easy to say the press or the wider media has got it wrong and is responsible for the moral degradation of our society but who ever said they were responsible for society or defined the scope of that which should be printed? What often gets left behind in debate about media content is the spectre of commercialisation and political patronage.

The modern media and press are businesses with shareholders, employees, turnover and profits. They happen to deliver news but it would be unfair and unrealistic to assume that they should put commercial considerations to one side when deciding what to print. So unless the press subscribe to a mutual moratorium over sensationalistic headlines we can safely assume these will continue to be used to sell papers. The problem is that the press is part of the democratic process but it is also part of the commercial world and a sector that contributes to the GDP of this country. It therefore has to respond to both societal and commercial pressure. In relation to the latter, convergence, competition and an online, on-demand, 24-7 media means that times are tough and the press needs to fight hard for its slice of the action and part of the profits.

To the extent that the press can be seen as responsible for lowering the moral fabric of society with their headlines of death and destruction or sex and sensation, society is itself to blame for providing the stories that lie beneath these headlines.

So if we are going to reserve the right to criticise the press we first need to redefine its role. What seems to be lacking is a consistent approach and this is down to the fact that there is varied consensus as to what this should be. There needs to be a far greater level of engagement with the press and media over what it is there for and what it should deliver. A competitive and diverse media market has led to fragmentation whereby people mix and match their sources as they grab news on the go. The result is that for many, they will know more about which celebrity has had a boob job than whether any of the political parties are actually delivering on their manifestos. It would take the politician being the one with the boob job to guarantee that the manifesto makes the front page.

So as Parliament prepares to put the Murdochs and Brroks through their paces the policitians shouldn't get too comfortable in their bunker - what the whole phone hack and News of the World demise demonstrates is that you can shut close down a paper but that will not stop the news!

So I will finish with a pretentious quote from Dante:
What fate of fortune led
Thee down into this place, ere thy last day?
Wo is it that thy steps hath piloted?
Above there in the clear world on my way?
I answered him, lost in a vale of gloom,
Before my age was full, I went astray.

The journey's not over and rest assured it will be the media that reports it and the politicians who regret it.