The media term “hack job” has gone literal and taken on a criminal taint. While the latest allegations about phone hacking at News of the World, the British tabloid, remain unproven in court, the scandal has shaken the public's trust in media. It is a reminder of the imperative for journalists to operate within the bounds of the law, and of the growing need for accountability in journalism. It should not, however, lead to more regulation of journalistic activity.
This is not the first time the organ has been implicated in criminality: in 2007, one of its reporters, and a private detective working with him, were imprisoned for their role in hacking into the voice mail of members of the Royal Family's staff. This time, the alleged targets of voice mail hacking include some of Britain's most vulnerable – a missing girl and her family, and families of victims of the July 7, 2005 London terrorist attack. Such invasions of privacy, if established, would be despicable.
These allegations have not yet led to any new criminal charges. (Past media investigations have suggested police inattention or complicity in the hacking.) British Prime Minister David Cameron (whose top media adviser until January was the top News of the World editor at the time of the Royal Family episode) has promised “an inquiry, possibly inquiries, into what has happened.”
What to make of this sleazy mess? Some of it may be the product of an ultra-competitive British media ecosystem, distinguished by payments to sources, interview subjects or even police officers, and by sensational or overtly political campaigning – all practices mastered by News of the World under Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the tabloid's parent company.
None of these practices are tolerated in Canada. But journalists and media organizations have a responsibility to speak out against them.
Law-breaking in the pursuit of journalism is simply unacceptable. For instance, we argue and protest against publication bans in court cases – once in a front-page editorial last year. But when they are ordered, we comply with them.
Other, less obviously outrageous journalistic activities may deserve scrutiny. The Globe and Mail's Editorial Code of Conduct says: “Writers must consult their editors if there is doubt about the legitimacy of any proposed news-gathering tactic.” On dealing with the victims of crimes, whose privacy the News of the World is alleged to have invaded, the Code of Conduct says this: “In dealing with people who are emotionally vulnerable and unaccustomed to talking to reporters, The Globe and Mail will take extra care to respect their dignity and feelings.”
It's important to get these principles out in the open, because the newsgathering process is opaque to many. Journalism is indeed about the aggressive pursuit of facts. In their practice of that craft, many journalists will become unpopular. And other ethical challenges emerge: In the formulation of Janet Malcolm, from The Journalist and the Murderer, a journalist “is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
But journalists should not revel in this image, from one of the most scathing and disputed critiques of the craft. Nor are they accountable just to their version of the truth. There is a circle of accountability in the media that encompasses reporters, their editorial masters, their owners and the reading public.
Journalists should err on the side of revelation, but they need to measure what they know against the public interest in knowing. They must be sure that they do not become powers unto themselves; better understanding of journalistic practice could help build trust with the public. Proprietors have to ensure that their pursuit of profit does not run afoul of the law or destroy the sense of trust in society. The appetite for the latest, most salacious, most intimate details – especially involving celebrities – sometimes appears boundless. The consequences of revealing all at any price – in interpersonal relationships, in social trust – can be great.
This does not require more regulation. The proliferation of media outlets, social media and journalistic activity by amateurs would make that pointless. Existing practices around newspaper self-regulation, and effective privacy and libel law can help protect the public. The past criminal prosecutions involving News of the World case may not have been enough, but the larger wave of revulsion in Britain at the most recent alleged improprieties – now that it has reached beyond celebrity and touched “ordinary” people – may have a disciplining effect.
Reporting the facts honestly is the task of journalism, for the purpose of serving the public interest, of speaking truth to power. It is a difficult pursuit, and a high calling. Extracting the facts dishonestly is a perversion of that calling.