When the story of phone-hacking and other internal shenanigans at News International in London became public company boss Rupert Murdoch acted quickly – he closed the News of the World over tapping the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and promptly set up a corporate “clean up” unit to deal with journalists accused of making illicit payments to police and public officials.
These actions were designed to allay seething public anger and to show the firm hand of management acting to quarantine and cure the infected parts of his media empire. In a tacit admission that this might not be enough to sooth the hurt caused by his newspaper operations he later separated his press business from the lucrative film and television sectors of his global operations.
While it is true that the passing of the News of the World, although painful to the staff, was widely seen as a bold and decisive statement against unethical journalism, the new internal unit – a so-called Management Standards Committee – enraged many journalists, and not just those inside the company.
Paying for stories is a long-standing practice in journalism and, in defined circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate, although most journalists should admit that the circumstances in which money changes hands are often less transparent than they should be.
In the News Corporation case, there are concerns about whether there has been sufficient consideration of the difference between legitimate payments to news contacts and the far more serious issue of bribery of public officials.
The actions of Murdoch’s internal unit caused consternation in many newsrooms across the media landscape when the unit began to ship out considerable amounts of internal information – including emails from journalists to their contacts – directly to the police. The scale of the handover is staggering – over 300 million internal emails says The Guardian. And the company also invited the police unit to share office facilities with the News Corporation staff close to the company’s London headquarters.
These have since been used as evidence against reporters and executives, leading to the arrest of 24 journalists working for the Sun (the sister paper of the News of the World), most of whom have been waiting for a year to know whether they will be formally charged and sent for trial.
Many of the editorial staff are furious not just that they believe the actions of the unit have made scapegoats of editorial staff for a corporate culture that was corrupt and dysfunctional but also because they say handing over confidential exchanges with contacts to the police has breached a cardinal principle of ethical journalism – to protect sources of information.
Now it appears that Murdoch himself has had second thoughts. According to a report in The Guardian, he told people at a private summit in London with many of the senior Sun editorial executives and journalists who are accused of making illegal payments that he now questions the wisdom of setting up this internal review body.
Apparently, Murdoch promised to continue to support the journalists affected and to pay legal fees but he can’t guarantee them jobs in future if they are found guilty. Nevertheless, morale in the London newsroom is said to be on the floor.
The new unit is now to be merged into the News Corporation legal department, but its work has raised questions about how best media organisations should deal with editorial and corporate malpractice. There are many who rightly think that opening the files of all journalistic work to police scrutiny is not wise, nor is it ethical.
The phone-hacking saga has not been all bad news; it has, after all, opened the door to the first serious debate about the role and responsibility of the British press in a generation and it could yet, despite the political infighting, lead to the creation of a credible and reformed system for independent press regulation.
But the lasting impact will only be felt if there is an ongoing commitment from media companies to create internal monitoring systems that not only promote standards and expose wrongdoing but do so while respecting ethical principles and the rights of journalists.