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21 July 2011

A better journalism

A better journalism

This article is published in accordance with the Alliance's Basis of Faith; however, this is a comment piece and therefore is unable to reflect every detail and nuance of belief held by Alliance members. Comment pieces may express views on which there is a divergence of opinion or understanding among evangelicals

It seems after this week's events that most people know more about the inner workings of News Corps than Rupert Murdoch. When he appeared before a parliamentary select committee the regular refrain that both he and his son James relied on was, basically, 'I don't know'. Granted that as the proprietor of a company with 57,000 employees and where the News of the World constituted less than one per cent, the finer details might be out of grasp, this still seemed unnecessarily evasive. 

The story is remarkable, the plot lines thicker than many conspiracy thrillers and would likely be rejected by publishers on grounds of incredulity. It has dominated the headlines for several weeks and shows no signs of abating quite yet. But should this story lead every news bulletin? Should it be cause for Prime Minister David Cameron to return early from his trade mission to Africa? Well it seemed that it was, so he did. He also agreed with Ed Miliband that Parliament should sit for an extra day so he could answer further questions.  

I want to suggest that it does not deserve the profile that it has received, and despite the thousands of column inches spilt, most of the coverage largely misses the point. The problem is that this has turned into theatre, a constantly unfolding soap opera where the audience are drawn in as actors and the show verges on becoming a circus. When a protester thrust a plate of shaving foam in the face of Rupert Murdoch during the hearing and Murdoch's wife slapped him down, the whole situation descended into farce.  

The select committee hearing was a show trial. The ageing media mogul showed remorse before failing to recall vital details. His son filibustered through the early answers to play down the clock, but the committee refused to play the game, the scheduled hour came and went and the questions went on. James Murdoch was corrected by his father and overruled on several points.  

The focus was on the criminality of actions that took place at the News of the World. There are at least 10 different inquiries underway at the moment and in hindsight I'm not sure what the point in this hearing was. Everyone wants to be outraged, the politicians are falling over themselves to put the boot into the hand that for so many years fed their insatiable quest for good headlines. News Corps' opponents are running the story with glee, and the titles within Murdoch's stable feel the need to pursue the story with equal vigour.  

The crisis hit the press first, and the police are now paying their price for failing to uncover the criminal shenanigans in this saga. It may also have political repercussions, especially as focus lingers on David Cameron's former communications chief Andy Coulson. This partly explains why Cameron is seen to be struggling with the crisis, and has come under criticism for not giving it sufficient attention.  

If I had to list the top 10 things on David Cameron's to-do list this would not feature. The criminal investigation needs to proceed, and it looks likely that this will end in more arrests and prosecutions. It is also abundantly obvious that the Press Complaints Commission woefully failed in its task and some form of regulation needs to replace this moribund body. But beyond that? Well, there is the bigger question that's being glossed over as shaving foam and scandal dominate.   

Why did this happen? The criminal acts were the choices of people using methods that they shouldn't to gain stories, it seems that they were sanctioned and at least implicitly condoned. Yet, the journalists went to such lengths to find stories that much of the public wanted to read. We have been reminded repeatedly that 7.6 million people read the News of the World each week. Our desire to know the finer details of celebrities' personal lives, or read with fascination the latest expose cannot be ignored.  

If the only outcome is the prosecution of criminal acts then this crisis will have been wasted. What is needed is a far more fundamental reassessment of our media consumption. The papers and news channels choose what news to run, which stories will drive circulation up and attract lucrative advertising. They inform their readers about what news is important. And in this the failure is far more widespread. The stories of celebrity gossip that intrude into the lives of others. Stories that carefully play on our fears or feed into our desires.  

Is it possible that out of such egregiously criminal acts a more positive journalism could rise from the ashes? From the coverage of the crisis my hopes are not high.