July 12th, 2011


Revolutions, ownership, and censorship #hacking

To read some of the commentaries on the phone-hacking scandal is to get the impression that a major revolution is underway. Comparisons are drawn with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the uprisings of the Arab spring.

Let this hyperbole pass as just another of the excesses of which some journalists are guilty.

For the comparison is not being considered as completely as it should. The true nature and consequences of all revolutions can only be determined later. Ten years after the end of the Soviet Union, the people of Russia, apparently fed up with the chaos that followed the collapse of Communism, elected an ex-KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, to lead them. He’s still there. Egyptian demonstrators returned to the streets last week - worried by the prospects for their revolution.

So the challenge is to take a careful look at what went wrong, and work out how best to address it. Before all journalists are dismissed as being as bad as the worst in the (News of the) World, remember that the doggedness of The Guardian and even the interest of The New York Times Magazine meant that this story was not allowed to disappear. Journalists may not be the saints in this story – there probably aren’t any – but they are not all sinners.

If there is a revolution underway, it needs to be carefully managed. Reform is clearly necessary, but must not be allowed to become an excuse for the abuse of authority. Peter Mandelson concedes in The Guardian that the last government were ‘cowed’, and suggests that the present government suffers from the same problem. He also says that any government is fed up with the negativity of the press. A bad one might therefore be tempted to introduce censorship in the name of ethics.

The issue of the amount of power which press barons really have is often debated in journalism and media education. Those who question the idea of great influence point to the popularity which, say, the BBC enjoys among readers of papers which constantly criticize it (not confined to News International titles). Does Mr Murdoch influence election results, or is he just good at backing a party which is going to win anyway? Whatever the truth, this is a case in which perception takes on the same power as reality – presumably why the last Labour government were ‘cowed’.

If, as it has been suggested in the last few days – again, perhaps a case of hyperbole (or wishful thinking) - that politicians are no longer afraid of Mr Murdoch, they should now show it. The government should tackle the question of ownership – and the power, real or imagined, that it brings - not impose censorship.


That would be a real revolution - hopefully liberating politics and the public, and only imprisoning those parts of the press who really are criminal.