18th Jul 2011

Phone-hacking in Theory

Nick Davies, investigative journalist par excellence and author of the highly timely Flat Earth News, here lambasts both Murdoch’s journalists and senior members of the Metropolitan Police.

But I’m not going to join in the chorus of disapproval against profit-driven tabloid culture. Of course, this phone hacking scandal is a scandal, and Davies is spot on in terms of the moral/ethical depravity at the heart of it, but enough voices are out there for the prosecution. As for the defence, I understand what some counter-voices mean when they talk about the special protection afforded to public-service media like the BBC when it falls fowl of professional high standards – the BBC’s Panorama is far from innocent in this regard – but, surely, there is no possible defence for the sewer journalism practised by the News of the World in the last 8 years or so.

The interesting thing about this whole story for me, and for media theory, is the range of theoretical perspectives that can shine a light upon it, and its wider implications for our contemporary culture and society. A few examples:

1. POLITICAL ECONOMY: Most obviously, this scandal draws attention to the political and economic power of Murdoch and News Corp, with Cameron and the Tories very much in the picture (it really would be no surprise if the p0liticians were no less corrupt than the police in their hospitable service to the Murdoch press), and the profit motive absolutely imperative to commercial media culture… to such an extent that tabloid journos will repeatedly break the law for the sake of a quick buck. Just what kind of pressure are these journos under? Of course, this profit-above-all-else ethos backfired with the rapid withdrawal of advertising and sponsorship following the hacking revelations. Forget Murdoch’s conscience: economic considerations closed down the News of the World – nothing more, nothing less.

2. INTERACTIONISM: Erving Goffman’s front/back model of social interaction could not be more apt here. Tabloid journalism, of course, is obsessed with the back region (revealing the truth about private lives, telephoto lenses – if not hacking gear - at the ready). But here, in an unlikely twist to the unfolding tale, the back-region behaviour of the journos themselves becomes the front-page splash. And the domino effect – actually, it’s more like an onion-peeling effect – uncovers a series of new and more shocking revelations. What next? No doubt some very senior and powerful people are waiting in the firing line, shaking in their proverbial boots. Put them all into one room, and body-language experts would have a field day. In a world where mediated interaction matters most, however, the crisis management PR consultants (and lawyers) must be doing their nut trying to keep their clients out of the (social) media glare.

3. CONSUMERISM: As for social media, some analysts have pointed out how people power, through Twitter and other social networks, brought about the downfall of the News of the World when activists held their sponsors to ransom. Such analysts are clearly artists of overstatement, but I partly take their point – ok, yes, to some extent, social media users (i.e. ordinary consumers like you and me) did force the hand of powerful decision-making owners/producers. People power indeed! No wonder Cameron and Co were so quick to disown their favourite news-management folk. After all, people are voters as well as good slogan lingo.

4. BEHAVIOURISM: Another essential theoretical angle here relates to media influence on public opinion. Interestingly, this news agenda has not only been set by journalists; it has been set up by journalists, because this is news about the news! But even more interestingly, as time goes by and this stroy continues to roll, regardless of whether any actual developments have occurred, consumer behaviour seems increasingly at odds with the news agenda. In the last few days, for instance, the most read stories on the BBC News site have been about the Lotto winners, rape and murder in India, and – wait for it – a bee-wearing contest in China. So from a purely behaviourist analysis, it seems we’re a nation of world-news-loving, wannabe anthropologists… and not much affected at all by this tiresome phone-hacking affair. Or are we? Lest we not forget, before its swift demise, the News of the World had been Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspaper for many years, including those years when – little did we know – the stories many of us paid for were being obtained through vile and criminal journalistic means. As the pro-tabloid camp rightly protests, cut-throat investigative journalism only gives people (proviso: some people) what they want. Are we all culpable, if not down right gullible?

I’ll leave readers (my students especially) to think of some more theoretical takes on the story that broke the World – quite literally. Meanwhile, I’ll reflect (for a short while at least) on why it is that the press, politicians and bankers are so rotten to the core. … Well, reflection over. Back to my holiday novel (for those interested, it’s The Beach by Alex Garland – quite liked the film, like what I’ve read so far).

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