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CMNS 326 (1)

British Journalism Review-2012-Bennett-60-6.pdf

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CMNS 326
David Murphy

British Journalism Review http://bjr.sagepub.com/     The Scandal of Selective Reporting Daniel Bennett and Judith Townend British Journalism Review 2012 23: 60 DOI: 10.1177/0956474812450672   The online version of this article can be found at: http://bjr.sagepub.com/content/23/2/60.citation Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com       Additional services and information for British Journalism Review can be found at:   Email Alerts: http://bjr.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts    Subscriptions: http://bjr.sagepub.com/subscriptions   Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav   Permissions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav >> Version of Record - Jul 13, 2012   What is This? Downnnnnnnnm bbbbbbbbjjm bbbbbbbbyOccccccccttttttttoooooooobbbbbbbbeeeeeeeerrrrrrrr 1111111155555555,,,,,,,, 22222222000000001111111133333333 The scandal of selective reporting Daniel Bennett and Judith Townend The media’s flawed self-reporting of phone hacking indicates the need for a publicly-available audit of news, suggest two academics According to political commentator Peter Oborne, phone hacking “has almost everything – royalty, police corruption, Downing Street complicity, celebrities by the cartload, Fleet Street at its most evil and disgusting”. “[It] should have been one of the great stories of all time,” he claimed. For a long time, it wasn’t. And although many national newspaper column inches have been devoted to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry since the story’s rise to prominence, newspapers’ self-interested reporting of the scandal continues to provide plenty of fodder for Private Eye’s regular “What you didn’t read” Leveson round-ups. The national newspapers’ selective approach when reporting the phone- hacking scandal demonstrates that news organisations remain powerful gatekeepers of “newsworthiness” and the contours of the news agenda. Ideally, journalists make news selections in the public interest, identifying relevant stories and important trends from the mass of information available. The lack of coverage given to phone hacking before 2011, however, exemplified how a definition of “newsworthiness” in the public interest can be subordinate to a tangled web of competing personal, professional, political and commercial interests. This is hardly surprising in the case of a scandal within the media industry, but undoubtedly relevant to other news stories as well. A new system of regulation – whatever its form – should not only end 60 abuse of the old self-regulation, but it should also consider the power that editors wield through their decisions regarding “newsworthiness”. In his ©Daniel Bennett and Judith Townend; DOI: 10.1177/0956474812450672; [2012/6] 23:2; 60-66; http://bjr.sagepub.com draft proposal for the reform of press regulation, Lord Hunt, chairman of the soon-to-be-replaced Press Complaints Commission, argued that part of the solution is an annual audit of newsroom standards, overseen by a named individual at each newspaper. We believe it is also necessary to have external and independent methods of holding the media to account. A straightforward and practical starting point would be an annual audit of UK newspaper content to spark and inform debate within and outside the industry on what news is being reported every year and how it is being covered. In July 2009, former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil described the phone-hacking scandal as “one of the most significant media stories of modern times” and yet, until the beginning of 2011, the story received minimal attention in most media outlets. A search on the Nexis UK database indicated thatThe Guardian– the paper that broke the story in July 2009 – published at least 879 articles on the matter up to November 2011, far more than its daily broadsheet counterparts: The Independent published 489, The Daily Telegraph 436, and News International’s Times 332. Moreover the vol.23 no.2 june 2012 majority of the articles The Guardian’srival titles were written in 2011, long after The Guardian’sinitial revelations and only after it was discovered that Milly Dowler’s voicemails had been intercepted in 2002. Tabloids gave minimal coverage A comparison of coverage at the end of 2010 demonstrates how little British Journalism Review newsprint the story warranted before the major developments in 2011. WhereasThe Guardianhad published 237 articles,The Independenthad 83,The Daily Telegraph 46, and The Times 43. Unsurprisingly, the tabloids gave the story minimal coverage.By the close of 2010, theDaily MailandThe Mail on Sundayhad published 38 articles, theNews of the World’ssister paper,The Sun 17, and theDaily MirrorandSunday Mirrora mere 11 between them. However much individual editors stress their independence, the News International-owned newspapers’ aversion to covering the story until July 2011 is not difficult to comprehend: the legal, commercial and political stakes were high if additional allegations of phone hacking were made to stick. Some of the fallout has already occurred as a result: the collapse of News Corporation’s bid to take over fully BSkyB; the closure of the 168-year- oldNews of the World; further arrests of former News International staff; and 61 James Murdoch’s resignations as chairman of BSkyB and executive chairman of News International. The broader failure of news organisations to regard the phone-hacking scandal as newsworthy, however, was the consequence of a complicated set of factors. First, phone hacking was not considered “news” by the newsrooms. Newspaper editors argued that the public had little interest in how journalists obtained their stories. As Richard Wallace, editor of the Daily Mirror, told the Society of Editors conference last year, phone hacking was scarcely covered before July 2011 because it was a “meeja story”. “It’s a very straightforward editorial decision… we didn’t think our readers were interested in it. Frankly, they weren’t”. Wallace might be right, but it is also likely that tabloids were wary of investigating the News of the Worldin case some of their own practices were subsequently investigated more closely. Allegations that illegal voicemail interception was widespread across Fleet Street have so far been denied, but the use of various “dark arts” to find news stories was not regarded as unusual. Their implementation was justified for a broad range of stories, from those clearly with a “public vol.23 no.2 june 2012 to many others which were, as the cliché has it, only of interest to the public. There was minimal coverage of any investigation which might have shed any light on these practices. Operation Motorman, the Information Commissioner’s investigation into journalistic breaches of the Data Protection Act in 2003, represents a case in point. A Guardianeditorial in 2006 described the first ICO report, What Price Privacy?, as a “highly British Journalism Reviewlittle reported, document” about newspapers’ use of private investigators. The ICO’s follow-up report six months later, What Price Privacy Now?, reflected on media coverageof What Price Privacy?to date and noted that “coverage even in the broadsheets at the time of publication was limited”. The muted tabloid response was even more marked. The tabloids have also been silent on the unauthorised publication of selected files from Operation Motorman on the Guido Fawkes blog. The extract revealed more than 1,000 alleged requests for information from News International journalists to the private investigator Steve Whittamore. The ICO condemned the unauthorised leak, a fact reported by tF hienancial Times, the freesheet Metro, The Times, The Independent, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, but a database and online search inditceas no corage of the leak or the ICO reaction by the other national titles despite agency reports by the Press Association and Associated Press. The Guido Fawkes blog claimed 62 there was “no political will to see this [disclosure] through” and that “the newspapers are keen, for their own reasons, to suppress the truth”. Newspa
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