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When 'journalism' runs amok

Posted: July 15, 2011 11:20 a.m.
Updated: July 18, 2011 5:00 a.m.

“Journalism” is not a word one should attach to the now, thankfully, defunct News of the World. It certainly didn’t practice the type of journalism we here at the C-I engage in ... and never will, I might add.

If you’ve been sleeping under the proverbial rock and somehow missed the ruckus from Britain, News of the World (NOTW) -- a 168-year-old London tabloid -- shut down a week ago amidst a phone-hacking scandal. Allegedly (and I only use that word because I am a professional journalist), NOTW reporters managed to hack into people’s cell phones as part of an apparently concerted effort to ... well, I don’t know. I can’t seem to get a handle on exactly why NOTW did this.

From its launch in 1843, NOTW consistently moved in the world of scandal. According to Wikipedia, “It quickly established itself as a purveyor of titillation, shock and criminal news. Much of the source material came from coverage of vice prosecutions, including transcripts of police descriptions of alleged brothels, streetwalkers and ‘immoral’ women.”

Even before Australian and American media mogul Rupert Murdoch got his hands on it in 1969,  NOTW’s notoriety shifted to delving into the sordid lives of celebrities and modern-day “gotcha” journalism.

My guess is that it likely began phone hacking -- the practice of surreptitiously gaining access to cell phone data, including voice mails -- as a way of scooping the competition on celebrity bad boys and girls.

But what NOTW reporters ended up doing went far beyond that.

I vaguely remember hearing about the 2006 arrests of NOTW royal editor Clive Goodman and two associates being arrested for (and later pleading guilty to) hacking phones connected to the royal family. NOTW Editor Andy Coulson resigned as well. More allegations surfaced in 2009 and 2010. By March 2010, the paper spent more than £2 million ($3.2 million) settling those allegations.

In January, Coulson retired a second time, this time as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director, due to the continued scrutiny. London’s Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) launched a new investigation at that time. Three months later, the MPS began arresting people but kept a lot of information about what was going on from the press.

Finally, The Guardian -- a far more traditional London newspaper -- began making inquiries and inroads, revealing far more wrong-doing than ever known before.

According to the American Journalism Review (AJR), The Guardian reported that all the way back in 2002, NOTW hacked the voicemail of a missing 13-year-old girl who turned up murdered. “The hackers had even deleted messages to free up space, giving the teenager’s parents false hope that she was alive and perhaps compromising the police investigation,” AJR reported.

So, NOTW had moved from celebrity and politician sleaze to invading the lives of ordinary people. In fact, The Guardian reported that NOTW may have hacked at least 7,000 voice mail accounts, including the relatives of dead British soldiers, members of the royal family (again), and current and former politicians.

Other British media reported on NOTW links to police corruption, allegedly bribing officers up to a total of £120,000 ($193,000).

And the phone hacking may have “crossed the pond” to our shores. The New York Times reported Thursday the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a “preliminary inquiry” into allegations that NOTW’s hackers tried to gain access to phone records of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “through bribery and unauthorized wiretapping” in violation of U.S. law.

Murdoch continues to own papers in Britain, Australia and around the world -- including the U.S. Those holdings include the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal along with their associated papers. He also owns Fox Broadcasting Company and My Network TV (WACH 57 and WKTC 63, respectively, in the Midlands).

How can we be sure that the corporate mentality that existed at NOTW, allowing phone hacking and police bribery, doesn’t exist at his U.S. holdings? AJR reports that “the contagion has spread” to NOTW’s sister papers, the Sun and the Sunday Times.

I’m not saying Post or Journal or even Fox News reporters have engaged in the same kind of schemes, but the fact that they apparently did spread to Murdoch’s other British properties makes you wonder.

I’ve always thought British journalism to be very, very different from American. Their versions of the National Inquirer always seem to enjoy far more popularity and legitimacy than tabloids here at home.

With one of Murdoch’s prize employees, Rebekah Brooks (she was NOTW editor from when the dead 13-year-old’s voice mail was hacked), finally announcing her resignation as chief executive of Murdoch’s News International, maybe that’s going to change. Maybe Londoners will finally realize that NOTW and papers like it -- while they may be exciting -- aren’t what they need.

Murdoch’s made a vast fortune pandering to the lowest common denominator. With this scandal, though, it’s beginning to look like the inglorious beginning of the end for one of the world’s most notorious media moguls.

It’s about time.

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