Media hacks and moral turpitude
As has been widely reported, embattled tabloid titan Rupert Murdoch shuttered the century-and-a-half-old News of the World after allegations of journalistic malfeasance surfaced last week. Some of the paper's staffers are alleged to have hacked the mobile phones of everyone from murder and terror victims to celebs, royals and members of parliament. They trawled personal voicemails on their search for dirt, then had the gall to delete them.
So, Rupe killed the messenger - about 200 of them - the way one might amputate an arm to treat a hangnail. Or, more accurately, an infected, gangrenous claw used to scratch well below the surface of moral turpitude. Do I think it's overkill to destroy an institution that provided printed news, straddling three centuries (despite its precipitous decline into a scandal sheet)? Yes. Should the "journalists" who grave-robbed voicemail messages for the financial gain of a multinational media conglomerate be punished to the furthest extent of the law? Absolutely. Their press passes should be swapped for prison IDs and instead of breaking news they should be breaking rocks. But how does it come to this for a media professional?
Though deadline anxiety admittedly will ratchet one's need for a lead (like, every week, my friends), it's only ever part of the story. On the darker side is a latent penchant for voyeurism. Like most species of writer, reporters are natural observers - generally, they're a half-step outside the general fray of life. Reporters are more apt to be looking in than out and more inward than outward when off the clock. This disposition has a baked-in susceptibility to ethical failings when it comes to acquiring information. The "need to know," is second only to the need to be the "first to know." It's ironic that proving one has secret knowledge means divulging that very knowledge to as many people as possible. In the case of News of the World that was a tempting 3 million readers daily.
Interestingly, some reporters only ever reveal part of a story - there's frequently more information that either didn't make the edit or is ripening in the recesses of a battered laptop or mouldering betwixt the coffee-stained pages of a Portage-brand Reporter's Notebook. Often times its material one might consider "deep background;" sometimes it's just plain blackmail written in AP Style. Or the information is shelved to honor the anonymity of a source, at least until they croak. It took only about 15 minutes before Bob Woodward released his Deep Throat book, "The Secret Man." He had already written it and kept it in a drawer, waiting for the inevitable. In Woodward's case, however, the fruits of his labor sprang from honest reporting, not an illegally-pilfered news-peg from some poor soul's private communication.
Despite the fact that my local work is published in a 132-year-old newspaper, I don't consider myself a reporter. I'm just a plain-vanilla writer, at worst a columnist, which is to say that, around me, the "truth" and the "facts" get about as smudgy as printers ink. That's not to say that I haven't any respect for the facts, or, for that matter, my colleagues who toil to provide them, unfiltered, to their readers. In fact, my esteem for them has seldom been higher.The fourth estate cross-checks the checks and weighs the balances of democracy. Rupert's phone-hacking hacks might have destroyed their paper but they've merely dented journalism, which will recover as it always does. As they proved with their own undoing, one can delete the message but not true messengers.
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Daedalus Howell takes your calls at the Future Media Research Lab, FMRL.com.