Competitive Pressure, Ethical Void Earmark UK Phone Hacking Scandal

16/07/2011 20:02 BST | Updated 15/09/2011 10:12 BST

The most surprising aspect of the UK phone hacking scandal is that so far it has been limited to the News of the World. In possibly the world's most competitive press system one might have assumed all the tabloids would have been eavesdropping on phone calls. But, who knows, in the end others might be implicated, too.

There are three main aspects that helped create the conditions for this mess. First, there's an all-powerful proprietor who through the decades has created an environment the British had thought was solely an American trait...there's no glory in second place.

Rupert Murdoch is a winner and he expects his staff to be winners, too. This not only puts pressure on his underlings, but it conditions them in a way to think anything is legal as long as you can get away with it, especially if you're after a good story.

This is not to say that Murdoch condones phone hacking or intimidating people. His problem is being the all-powerful head of a global media empire. It's almost impossible to keep tabs on your field commanders.

Second, there's the UK national print media in total. Even before the Internet and newspaper websites, the print media here was cutthroat and competitive to a point where the only stories worth printing were exclusives and scoops.

Yet, the Web has revolutionised the print media by creating an immediacy and convenience to the news that was never before known. It has internationalized the smallest weekly to the largest national daily.

What the Web has also done is to kill off a large portion of newspapers and magazines all over the world. Yet, the UK national print media still exists, but from an overall smaller circulation from what it was when I first came to London in the early 70s.

The pressure on reporters and editors to compete with all manner of electronic media as well as other papers is that much greater. They do this by coming up with stories people enjoy, but those which BBC News or the Guardian won't touch.

However, as the competition bar is raised higher and higher, as with some Tour de France bike riders, steroids are used to increase performance. In the case of the current scandal, resorting to subterfuge, hacking, intimidation and even blackmail of sorts to obtain information or compliance.

We like to think we're living in a civilized society. That may be so, but the obsession with scoops and sex is what sells tabloids and the only way to keep on selling them is printing bigger and better stories.

"We're the guardians of a free press," is how one tabloid reporter put it. And when some of these reporters face a Commons select committee you can bet they will offer this rationale for their actions: "We broke the law because finding out who celebs were sleeping with was in the public interest."

Their public interest defense is based on such an interest being more compelling than obeying the law, which means that such journalists are above the law when pursuing the public interest in accessing Gordon Brown's bank account or Hugh Grant's love life.

A scandal such as this was a long-time in coming. The down-market tabs have been pushing the envelope for years. But it's one thing doing something heroic such as uncovering government corruption or sex slave rings and another victimizing ordinary people, which causes public outrage and gives a government a green light to come down hard on the news media.

One might compare the present crisis to a child who plays his parents against each other (the political right and left) to get what he wants, only to go a bit too far and get slapped down for it. That's what happening now.

But there is a third aspect, the people involved, all seasoned editors...Still, there was an exception. When the movie is made of this scandal think of Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl," a secretary with a lot of brains and drive who winds up a company executive. But, remember that was just a movie.

The now former News International Supremo Rebekah Brooks initially told her staff she didn't resign because she didn't know anything about the alleged crimes being committed. And, at that point in this unseemly debacle she might have been telling the truth.

Since moving upstairs from being a hands-on-editor, in long-standing British fashion her job would largely be concerned with long lunches, PR for the company and schmoozing high-level figures, something that apparently was her forte.

Yet, practices and methods emanate from the top and filter down to the shop floor. Brooks' history of tenacious to desperate sensational journalism set a tone at the News of the World that became the benchmark and seal of approval for outrageous antics which culminated in massive illegal acts.

For her as editor not to know what her crew was doing, if at all true, may have had something to do with her lack of basic news training and a course in journalistic ethics. In any case, it calls into question her competence.

My first regular job in London back in 1974 was working as features editor of Fleet Street News Agency. And one of the most impressive aspects of my time there was seeing young reporters working apprenticeships as part of National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) training schemes.

Had Ms. Brooks undergone an NCTJ indentureship or attended a journalism school she may have learned what was and wasn't proper and her duty, not as an egotist, but as a responsible journalist.

But, she came to prominence through the school of hard knocks..., which may be an appropriate way of describing the meteoric rise of a sizzling hot babe, who went from secretary to editor of the biggest national Sunday paper in only 11 years.

Again, I have to think back at those kids working their asses off at Fleet Street News Agency for next to nothing, many hoping to someday work at a national paper. Only a few made it and fewer still will rose to editor status.

Yet, now those chickens have come home to roost...there's a time of reckoning. Ms. Brooks never expected the seeds of her brand of journalism would breed several out of control Jeff Decades, willing to do anything for anything...after-all, most of the tasteless and unseemly phone hacking haul weren't the super scoops the super redhead expected of her troops.

In the end, Murdoch will keep it in the family and offer his unofficial "daughter" a different position...possibly at 20th Century Fox...Hollywood seems like a natural choice for the fiery redhead. They love bullshit out there. She would be right at home.