Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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No turning back

The <em>News of the World</em> phone hacking scandal is growing by the minute, and threatens to chan

Each hour brings new revelations. More victims of phonehacking are being identified -- not just celebrities, or politicians, whose discomfort we have tolerated in the past, but real people, ordinary people like us, whose private moments of anxiety, grief and despair have been listened in on, and used to fuel tabloid tales.

Ever since allegations broke that an investigator working for the News of the World had hacked the phone of a missing teenager, and deleted messages, this story has taken on a new life. A Facebook group calling for a boycott of the News of the World has thousands of members. More significantly, advertisers, who have been bombarded with complaints from their customers, are deciding to withdraw their brands from the toxic environment of the News of the World -- for now at least. This is no longer a trifling matter of ethics only of interest to the London media bubble or the pitchfork-wielding Twitchunters; this is the only story in town, and it has angered more than just dripping-wet liberal Guardian readers. The shock and dismay reaches out much further.

You wouldn't know that from reading the Sun, though. They have covered the unfolding drama at their parent company News International, and their sister paper the News of the World, as if it were happening in another world -- a minor scuffle, but nothing to see here: please distract yourself with these other stories, rather than reading these few lines about our troubles. Apparently, it's business as usual.

Except it isn't. Newspaper readers aren't mugs; Sun and News of the World readers aren't mugs. It's wrong to think of them as a tide of dumb morons who don't understand the gravity of what's going on; a bunch of dribbling zombies who will happily skip down to the newsagents on Sunday and buy their favourite paper regardless of its alleged misdemeanours. It might be easier for us to see the world in those terms, but I tend to have a bit more faith in newspaper readers -- including News of the World readers -- than that.

The Sun might not be giving the phonehacking drama the attention that its newsworthiness deserves, but that doesn't matter: punters will be hearing the story on the radio, seeing it on television, reading about it on the net and seeing it covered elsewhere. The Sun's own website has carried discussions about the phonehacking fiasco today on its forums -- though some threads appear to have mysteriously disappeared.

Calls for a boycott of this Sunday's News of the World -- and wider calls for a boycott of News Corporation products -- are increasing. This is not just a few silly vexatious lefties on Twitter getting in a tizzy, as these things are usually depicted; this is much wider than that. Corporations who didn't worry about seeing their products placed in the country's most popular newspaper when the first phonehacking revelations came out are now thinking again. This is a big deal.

Perhaps News International hopes it can ride out the story; perhaps it genuinely doesn't understand the storm that has been created; or maybe a sacrificial figure is being prepared, someone to blame so the so-called mob can be satisfied and everything can carry on just as it always was.

So where we go from here? We don't trust the papers to police themselves. We don't trust the Press Complaints Commission to police the papers. We don't trust politicians to police the papers. Left with no-one to rely on but themselves, the campaigners have targeted advertisers -- and the efforts are paying off, in the short term at least. But what happens next will go some way to deciding how the media go about their business in this country.