Journalism has attracted an impressive array of rascals and scallywags down the years, but nothing prepared public opinion for the utter immorality revealed in News of the World phone hacking scandal. Usually when the media use the word “shocked”, the rest of us would have said “mildly interested/amused”.
This time though, it’s appropriate. There was genuine shock and anger on learning that the News of the World’s employees had deleted messages from the phone of a murdered child, giving her parents false hope that she was still alive and interfering with the police investigation.
A common reaction is that the press, politicians and even the police have betrayed people’s trust.
At first sight this seems bizarre. Opinion surveys regularly show less faith in reporters than just about any other profession.
In the IPSOS MORI Veracity Index linked to above, only 19% of those surveyed in the UK on 10-16 June this year trusted journalists to tell the truth. That’s a dismal score but it’s still much better than the 14% for politicians, the least-trusted group in the poll.
So why should the British public feel betrayed by people they don’t trust in the first place?
I think that part of the answer is that readers buy the supermarket tabloids and redtops mainly to be entertained, so gossip about celebrities is fine. After all, these are people who sell their private lives to the newspapers and magazines anyway, and accept money from advertisers to persuade the gullible to dress like them, eat and drink like them and even smell like them. And if they don’t like what’s said, they have the means to defend themselves.
The result is that most readers probably didn’t care about phone hacking when only the rich and famous were victims.
The feeling of betrayal comes from the fact that the tabloids always present themselves as defending morality, upholding what’s best in national traditions, and supporting their readers. Following the backlash when this was shown not to be the case, many commentators have suggested that things will never be the same again.
We’ve heard this discourse about the power of popular anger before. Remember how the financial crisis was going to change the way banks behaved?
The OECD website has a special section on restoring public trust. Society can’t function without trust, but my personal opinion is that while we do need to restore trust, often the problem is that we placed too much trust in people and institutions who aren’t trustworthy.
Newspapers are dying: Advertisers fled during the recession and haven’t come back, and readers now turn to the Internet – not inky pages of newsprint – to find out what’s going on. This accepted wisdom has become so pervasive it even has its own website.
But are rumours of the newspaper’s demise premature? A new report from the OECD suggests that – for all the challenges – there may be life in the old medium yet.
Admittedly, the picture for traditional newspapers – paid-for and not given away – looks gloomy in the OECD area. Between 2000 and 2008, their circulation fell in most OECD. But against that, circulation expanded strongly in some emerging economies – by 45% in India and 34% in South Africa. Indeed, despite all the gloom, circulation actually rose globally between 2000 and 2008.
Paid for dailies average total daily circulation (2000-08, in millions)
Still, there’s no question that the traditional news business is facing challenges, especially in developed countries, with large falls in advertising revenue and circulation income, most notably in the United States.
Can the news business reinvent itself? As The Economist reports, in some ways it already has: “Newspapers are becoming more distinctive and customer-focused. Rather than trying to bring the world to as many readers as possible, they are carving out niches.” And as James Fallows recently reported in The Atlantic, technologies like Google that seem to threaten the news business may actually help to save it.
There has also been much discussion of whether governments could do more to support newspapers. Some countries already support the press financially, by subsidising printing and distribution, for example, or providing tax breaks. Doing more is an option but it would clearly raise serious questions over press freedom from state control. And clinging to newspapers as the only way to save journalism could be a dangerous strategy.
As Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, who prepared the OECD report, told The New York Times, “policy initiatives focused on salvaging traditional newspapers will fail to address” the bigger question of how to safeguard high-quality journalism. That distinction – between journalism and the newspapers that carry it – will surely become ever more important in the emerging media landscape.
However, as the OECD report points out, while new models of newsgathering and delivery hold plenty of promise, there are also potential perils: “One extreme is that online and other new forms of more decentralised news will finally liberate readers from partisan news monopolies. … The other extreme is that the demise of the traditional news media is before us (partially caused by the rise of the Internet) and with it an important foundation for democratic societies is at risk.”