By Hajrah Mumtaz
HOW far can, or should, a journalist go to get the scoop? Many reporters would instinctively reply that going to any length is kosher and that, indeed, the willingness to put yourself on the line is what separates the brilliant from the merely competent.
But a no-holds-barred approach may not necessarily be the right one, as the News of the World case illustrates. On Sunday, amidst much controversy and anger in various quarters, the UK tabloid put out its last edition. While the presses for the 168-year-old paper rolled for the last time, the media world reeled from an ethics scandal that has caused heads to roll and left UK Prime Minister David Cameron in a difficult position.
On July 4, The Guardian reported that in March 2002, the NoW had intercepted the voicemail messages of a young girl called Milly Dowler, who had recently gone missing. According to The Guardian, within a short time of Milly’s disappearance NoW journalists hired a private investigator to get the story. This included getting the home addresses and telephone numbers for the family, two of which were ex-directory and illegally obtained by PI Steve Whittamore through a source from British Telecom’s confidential records.
Having gained access to Milly’s telephone voicemail messages NoW became privy to all the calls made to her by her family and friends. Within a few days, however, the voicemail box filled up, and new messages started being rejected. The Guardian reported that NoW journalists then deleted earlier messages to free up space. This not only gave the young girl’s family and friends the hope that she might be alive, but also caused problems in the police investigation by destroying potentially valuable evidence.
Barely a week has passed since The Guardian’s disclosures, during which things have moved at a rapid pace.
The initial story has uncovered a can of worms. NoW’s former royal editor, Clive Goodman, was jailed in 2007 for hacking into the voicemail boxes of Princes William and Harry. He has been rearrested in the current case.
And amongst the prominent people at the heart of the scandal is Andy Coulson, ex-media chief to the British prime minister.
He was the NoW editor from 2003 to 2007, when he resigned after Goodman and PI Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for illegal phone-hacking.
Now, he is facing phone-hacking and corruption allegations for allegedly improper payoffs made by the NoW to police officers during the time he was the paper’s editor. Both Coulson and Goodman were released on bail on Friday. Meanwhile, the accusations of phone-hacking have expanded to include the voicemail messages of slain soldiers.
On Thursday, NoW owner Rupert Murdoch announced that Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper would be closed down.
The issue is not just the accusations being levelled against the NoW, of course. Also in the picture is the control of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, for which Murdoch’s News Corp. has bid and on which the British government is due to decide.
The NoW saga brings to the fore the problems of ethics inherent in journalism. Getting the story is important, but at what cost?
Certainly, it is not possible to condone illegal steps such as obtaining ex-directory phone numbers, intercepting messages or giving/taking bribes. Yet ethical and responsible reporting goes a lot deeper and requires that a distinction be drawn between that which is illegal and that which is unethical: clearly, some steps can remain unethical even if they are not technically illegal.
In Pakistan, where the media field has mushroomed over the past decade, the latter issue is of greater concern.
In January, this matter came to a head with the widespread concern that the media had played a role in the murder of Salmaan Taseer by misreporting his statements and whipping up public anger over the suggested parliamentary review of the blasphemy law.
While such a charge cannot be empirically proven, there are other areas where there is evidence of unethical reportage.
Consider, for example, the manner in which opinion is routinely palmed off as fact, and the number of news stories that are found to have been based on false premises.
The problem lies not just in reporters’ eagerness to get the story at any cost. There is also the cut-throat competition between different news organisations, so that editors or desk-heads often push their staff to go to greater and greater lengths.
The problem is best, and most humorously, put by novelist and political columnist Henry Porter, in an essay titled ‘Editors and Egomaniacs’: “Once an editor has served in the job for a few years, his grip on reality tends to degenerate. The unhinging is in part due to the excessive preoccupation of an editor’s mind, which churns endlessly with the business of the paper, but also with the insatiable appetite for novelty. All life is raw material for his publication and when it doesn’t quite match his technicoloured expectations, he is liable to demand that his staff do something about it.”
After questions were raised about Pakistani news organisations’ reportage of terrorist attacks and violence, media houses came together to agree upon a self-enforced code of conduct in such situations. That step now needs to be replicated, and at a lower level. In terms of ethicality, only the individual journalist himself can decide between right and wrong. The brave new world of Pakistan’s news media requires that each person introspect on that count.
The writer is a member of staff.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi