As Robert Peston put it this morning – “This is now much more than a newsroom going bad….”
The revelation that not just celebrities but also victims of tragedy have had their phones hacked raises –or, more accurately, lowers – the whole News of the World debate.
A journalist’s job is very simple – to get as close to a story as possible, and bring the readers, viewers or listeners a clear understanding of the story and what it means. In covering a tragedy, a journalist will want to talk to those most closely affected. But if those involved do not want to talk publicly that is the end of the matter. The story must be approached from another direction.
What is clear is that listening secretly to private, deeply personal conversations goes way beyond the bounds of acceptable journalism.
It is of course too easy to be self-righteous. Many journalists must be recalling occasions when they strayed too close to that line. Tricks and techniques are part of the journalist’s armoury, whether it is offering sensational quotes in the hope that they will be agreed, positioning a TV camera to grab a private moment, or a line of commentary which distorts or sensationalises an issue. Journalists understand it and practise it, while the public simultaneously despise it and accept it as a price to pay for a free press.
This, however, is another dimension. Not the fact that the police are paid for information. That comes as no surprise. They have valuable information and some are only too prepared to exact a high price for that.
But the ability and willingness to listen to private conversations anywhere, at any time, in a sense invalidates legitimate reporting. Foot-slogging journalism and long, painstaking investigations are no longer necessary if all one has to do is turn up the technology and listen in.