The fickle media

The news this summer has been particularly grim; ebola has ravaged Western Africa, massacre has ranged from Ukraine, to Iraq, to Israel-Palestine. These events have rightly dominated the front pages and news bulletins, accompanied by haunting photos of the civilians caught up in them – a little girl in a Gazan hospital, a young boy forced to flee Mosul, the thousands of people who lined the route from Eindhoven air base to Hilversum in the Netherlands travelled by the hearses which carried the bodies of those killed on flight MH17. The world felt these people’s pain.

But the newspapers have only so many pages, the news programs have only so much time, and new events replace old. The media has to keep one step ahead of waning public opinion, which gets bored of a story within just a few days. Profits matter. And so we no longer hear of the war in Syria, where the death toll is now 160,000. Nor do we hear much of Libya as it crumbles, forcing the US and Britain to close their embassies. In Europe, we hear little of the thousands of children who have turned up, starving, scared and alone, on the Texas/Mexico border and who face an uncertain future. The crises in the CAR and Mali are unreported outside France, and we have long forgotten the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls whose story once captured the world’s attention.

Ignorance is the precursor to powerlessness. You have to know about a problem to do something about it, and the media has a duty to keep people informed. The media should not just reflect society, but also lead it. It should remind people of problems which are long-running, not just headline-grabbing ones. That is how public opinion is formed, and how change happens. For public opinion is a stronger force than people give it credit for. Israel is terrified of going so far that it loses American backing or inflames the boycott movement. Putin’s meddling in Ukraine is based on calculations about popularity at home. But because these issues aren’t going to be addressed for long, those causing so much damage will simply get away with it, as the media moves on.

The worrying lack of news – apart from that of the World

The headlines are still dominated by the phone-hacking saga, which is now dragging on a tad. This author welcomed the resignation of the News of the World’s former Editor and CEO of News International, Rebekah Brooks, but is now getting bored. Well, I was, until the Met’s chief commissioner resigned on Sunday. I did not see that coming – not so quickly anyway. In his resignation speech the commissioner said that the up-coming public enquiries would take up too much of his time for him to do his job well. That is probably true. However, the question arises as to whether he is simply getting out early – i.e. are there more revelations to come out of the woodwork relating to police officers taking bribes from journalists? Then the deputy commissioner, John Yates, also resigned and tones sobered – the saga had now decapitated the Met. Today I woke to the alarming headline ‘Hacking witness dead’ on the front of The Times. The police said the death of Sean Hoare, who claimed that Andy Coulson was involved in the hacking, was unexplained but not suspicious.

The main point of this post is not to examine the phone-hacking scandal – newspapers and broadcasters are already picking it apart. Indeed, I would much rather document the news not making it onto the bulletins or front pages.

There were unconfirmed claims that Egypt’s ex-President, Hosni Mubarak, had slipped into a coma, although his doctors later denied this. Later it was announced that Mr Mubarak had suffered a period of very low blood pressure. However, his lawyer continued to say that the coma was real – two weeks before Mr Mubarak is due to stand trial on charges of corruption and ordering the firing of live ammunition at protesters in January. It appears, therefore that Mubarak is prepared to try anything to avoid justice. If he succeeds, Egypt’s fragile progress may skid to a halt. This would have serious consequences for the morale of those inspired by Egypt’s successes.

In Manchester, an NHS hospital has become a crime scene after three patients died when their saline drips were deliberately contaminated with insulin. Eleven other patients are said to have been victims and are being treated accordingly, and will serve as important witnesses. Security at the Stepping Hill Hospital has been increased; with a visible police presence due to an ongoing investigation. Staff and visitors are being questioned in the hope that someone saw something suspicious, but nothing has yet come to light.

A bitter humanitarian crisis has been declared in the Horn of Africa, where rain has not been seen for almost three years. Hundreds of thousands of families have been left without food as crops and animals have died, meaning that the majority of children are suffering severely from malnutrition, as are many adults. The worst affected, mainly in Somalia, are now flooding to huge refugee camps inside the borders of Kenya and Ethiopia where some aid is available. The recent influx of people has overwhelmed the camps, and aid agencies are warning that they can not cope. In Britain, money can be donated through the DEC at http://www.dec.org.uk/item/506?gclid=CI761_iMjqoCFewJtAodt0Xixg or by texting HELP to 70000 which gives £5. More analysis of this story soon.

The News of the World leaves everyone with a nasty headache

The best selling British newspaper ever made a swift exit from new stands last week, when News Corp – the company owned by Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon – decided to pull the plug amid a furore over the now infamous phone hacking scandal. If this sudden end to the 168-year-old publication was meant to ensure an end to the torrent of allegations of phone hacking pouring into the public domain, it failed miserably. In fact the allegations have now spread to another News Corp paper – the Sun – with the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown claiming that the publication illegally obtained medical records relating to his son Fraser, which they used to announce that he has cystic fibrosis.
The scandal has been rumbling along for at least five years, but due to the status of the victims – celebrities, mostly – the public just did not care. However the whole thing came alive when it emerged that the News of the World is said to have hacked into the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the schoolgirl murdered in 2002. The public were appalled by the fact that Glen Mulcaire – a private investigator at the News of the World – had deleted some of Milly’s messages to allow new ones to be received. This gave the family hope that Milly was alive. Then new allegations surfaced, saying that the paper had hacked the phones of families of deceased military personnel and relatives of the victims of the 7/7 bombings. I have one question – what on earth could they find out that was news-worthy? In an investigation by the police in 2005 over the hacking of the voicemails of various Royals, Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman – a journalist – were both jailed. The then Editor – Andy Coulson – resigned over the saga in 2007 (see below).
The woman in charge of the newspaper at the time when the alleged phone hacking occurred (bar the episode with the Royals) was Rebekah Brooks, then Editor and now CEO of News International – a subsidiary of News Corp. There have been many calls for her resignation – which it is said she offered twice before the closure of the News of the World – but she appears to be somewhat of a darling of the Murdochs, who have kept her on. Ms Brooks denies any knowledge of the phone hacking techniques employed by her staff, which means one of two things: either she is lying, or she was very bad at her job. Had the Murdoch’s accepted her first offer to resign, public anger may have been diffused and 200 people would have kept their jobs at the News of the World. Therefore, I support the argument that she must go.
But the scandal hasn’t just tainted journalists working for Mr Murdoch, several important MPs and members of the Met have been caught up in the fallout. Even David Cameron is in a bit of a pickle. He seems to have no control over anything and misjudged the situation by saying there needed to be a media regulator ‘with teeth’. Many in Britain saw this as an attack on the free press – which may or may not be true – but it was a stupid thing to say. Many also argue that politicians are too close to the press establishment: Mr Cameron also faces questions about his friendship with Ms Brooks, which has recently turned into very bad PR. Most damaging, however, was Mr Cameron’s decision to hire Andy Coulson as his Communications Director n 2007, months after he had been forced to resign. Personally, I would say this was one of Cameron’s worst decisions – it was bound to end badly. And end badly it did, when Mr Coulson resigned again, this time from Downing St, in 2010. In July 2011, Mr Coulson was arrested as part of a police investigation. Mr Cameron has tried to save-face a little by ordering not one but two public inquiries – what good can come out of them is questionable now that the News of the World has ceased publication.
The last piece of the puzzle is the Met Police, which has failed on multiple counts. Firstly, rumours are rife that police officers accepted payment from the newspaper in return for information, including the phone numbers used in hacking. This leads to serious questions about integrity and warrants an investigation from the IPCC, if you ask me. Secondly, the police seem to have botched their first investigation back in 2005. Although they had collected Mr Mulcaire’s notebooks which contained thousands of phone numbers, they failed to notify potential victims. They knew that Milly Dowler’s phone had been targeted but did not tell the family. Then, when leads ran dry, the police cancelled the investigation. When the Met began to consider reopening the case London was hit by the 7/7 bombings and attention, it is said, turned to counter-terrorism. That seems fair, at least.
The news coverage of this sorry saga has been relentless and repetitive, but there is another level. This is to do with media ethics. At what point does the holy-grail notion of freedom of the press go too far? (I’m not answering this – comment with your views.) I for one will not miss another big-headlined tabloid, but as I have said before: if the public didn’t want gossip, the press would not publish it. Maybe the best thisng to come out of this scandal is a new and widespread awareness of the quality of reporting we want to read.

3 things to keep in mind

1) As with all types of media, us bloggers are probably biased. Personally, I try not to be, but I am not sure if I achieve this – or if it is achievable in the first place. As my interest in the media has increased in recent months, I have begun to notice subtle phrases that demonstrate the biases of an article or television report.

When the views of one individual are being expressed, they are often contained within the safe limits of an opinion column. This is very good, the reader instinctively knows that they are not being presented with a balanced argument or all the relevant facts. This is why I sign-post any opinion articles I write. I may be opinionated – but at least I know I am. The problems arise when a whole publication or broadcaster holds a bias which its employees must adhere to in all of their work. Here, the warning signs are lacking.

Take, for example, this phrase: ‘X, Y and Z should be done. The current A policy is failing.’ According, one might ask, to who? Has the author of this sentence examined how and why policy A is failing? And have they examined in enough detail the consequences of X, Y and Z enough to say that they should be done? I am by no means saying that every suggestion any journalist has ever made is wrong. I am simply saying that we should not blindly agree with them without using our own brains as well.

2) Sources of information are interesting things to evaluate – and not just in tabloid stories about super-injunctions (a whole other subject). There are two main strands to this debate – accuracy and reliability. The first is relatively straightforward. When you see a quote or something along the lines of ‘So and so told this publication’ all you need to ask yourself is whether said information sounds credible. If not, well, there you go. As to reliability, is the person likely to have a good knowledge of what they are talking about? For example, a professor of environmental issues may have a more reliable view on new energy-saving cars than a car salesperson. Likewise, is the source biased? Are figures about unemployment coming from the Department of Work and Pensions or the National Office for Statistics? You get my gist, I’m sure. Ask yourself whether the source has anything to gain. Or, more importantly, lose.

3) Last but not least – hype. When the media have a story that sells, they’ll do anything they can to keep it on the front page, even if that means making things up or analysing completely irrelevant stuff. It is, if you think about it, a great piece of marketing. However this does not necessarily mean that you want to read it. You need to dive through the massive headlines and determine whether the content is any good. The media also love a scandal. When every newspaper is showing the same thing as every television news show, while everyone discusses it over the table at dinner parties or in the queue at Starbucks it is easy to forget points one and two of this article and get sucked in to the story as if it was a black hole. It isn’t.