EDITORIAL – Remit of the Press
Today the popular British Sunday paper The News Of The World was published for the last time. Its demise is as tragic as anything that has befallen the Fourth Estate in the past 168 years.
The unprofessional and unethical practice of hacking into the email and cellphones of well known Britons, who might be thought to be newsworthy, was the beginning of this sad departure of a paper that maintained a circulation of 2.7 million copies.
The end beckoned when at the close of a recent murder case, it was revealed that the newspaper’s reporter hacked into the dead girl’s cellphone, probably changed messages and may have impeded the police investigation into the unfortunate young girl’s disappearance.
That some politicians and other prominent figures may have had their phones hacked did not fuel the kind of outrage that followed these latest disclosures four days ago. There were also allegations of the paper paying money to the police for information.
Readers expressed their vitriol on social media, advertisers withdrew their support, and the owners decided to close. The lessons of this dramatic development must not be lost on local or regional Press and public.
The seminal role of the Press in being watchdogs over those who exercise political, corporate and social power must be matched by the strictest adherence to ethical standards of a high order. That is why journalism is after all a most honourable profession, and is often referred to as the Fourth Estate, for the critical observation of the society, reported on for the public benefit is its responsible remit.
It has famously been said that power without responsibility is the preserve of the harlot, but the Press enjoys no such laxity. Its awesome power must always be exercised and circumscribed by a high sense of duty and responsibility to the profession and to the public. Outrageous invasion of the privacy of innocent individuals going about their lawful business can hardly be justified, and the hacking of a missing girl’s cellphone is unforgiveable.
And the public’s justified outrage speaks volumes for the ability of ordinary people by their combined action to demonstrate that newspapers are there to serve the general good, and that when the public feel journalists have crossed the line, they may exercise the power of the purse as a telling restraint upon unethical behaviour.
But this incident must not be elevated into wholesale condemnation of the Press. One bad apple does not a barrel spoil, and the Press still carries out its duties by and large, in a most responsible manner.
Indeed, it was another newspaper that was instrumental in unearthing this issue and keeping it on the front burner.
And so as we condemn, we applaud. Those journalists who were faithful enough to their profession to probe this matter to publication and disclosure are the heroes of this sordid affair. Without them this matter might have died a natural death and be written off as just another unproved allegation.
As it now stands, a judicial enquiry in which witnesses will be giving evidence under oath will be held, and the police arrested and questioned a former editor of the paper for eight hours.
In our small landscapes this kind of development would have a more devastating impact. Local and regional journalists therefore need to pay attention to these matters, because the smaller the community, the greater the need for the Press to protect the society.
Conversely, the greater is the impact of failure to adhere to the highest standards.