The journalistic sleuthing that uncovered Britain's phone hacking scandal may turn out to be a double-edged sword as calls to review media practice could stifle press freedoms. Phil Taylor reports.
Could it be that good old-fashioned journalism by a determined reporter on the other side of the world will result in regulation being imposed on New Zealand's media?
Public disgust at the hacking of phones by Rupert Murdoch's News of the World has created a mood to review regulation of the media far beyond The Docklands headquarters of News International, the company that controls his London newspapers.
In New Zealand and Australia the question is being asked whether time should be called on media self-regulation. The problem is how to change the system of policing what is unfair, distasteful or indecent without wounding the freedom necessary for media's fourth estate role.
The events that triggered the crisis for Murdoch - revealing that journalists had paid bribes to police and exposed his empire's links to the top of British politics, thereby producing an appetite for reform - had their roots in a BBC radio discussion between two newspapermen in February 2008.
One was Nick Davies, a reporter with the Guardian, the other was Stuart Kuttner, managing editor of the News of the World. They were discussing Davies' book, Flat Earth News which canvassed the hacking of cellphones of young princes William and Harry and those of several royal aides in 2005.
News International had stuck to the line that its royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, had been a rogue reporter who had enlisted the help of a private investigator. Kuttner dismissed Davies and his "sour and gloomy" book, reiterated that hacking had "happened once" and that the offender had been sacked and jailed.
Later that morning, "as if in a thriller," Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in last month's The New York Review, Davies received a call from a stranger. The caller was someone within News International. What Kuttner said was false, Davies was told. The practice of hacking cell phones was rife at the News of the World.
Encouraged, Davies resumed his sleuthing and eventually the dominoes began to fall. As more people learned they had been victims of hacking, they began to sue. Privately, the company offered compensation, while a succession of stories obliged police to renew investigations.
But the pivotal story was Davies' report that journalists working for the News of the World had hired private investigators in March 2002 to hack into the voicemail of the phone of missing 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
That story appeared on July 5, 2011. With advertisers abandoning the tabloid, Murdoch announced two days later that the paper was being closed after 168 years. The drastic measure didn't lance the wound, nor did the resignation of Rebekah Brooks - the paper's editor at the time Dowler's phone was hacked - as chief executive of News International.
In the following year, police investigations, a parliamentary committee hearing and an ongoing inquiry, set up by prime minister David Cameron and presided over by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, have shown that phone hacking was done on an industrial scale.
Leveson's inquiry is exploring the culture, practices and ethics of the press, its relationship with the public, police and politicians, and the extent to which the current regulatory regime has failed. It will make recommendations for an improved regulatory system and about how cross-media ownership issues might be handled.
A succession of victims appeared at the inquiry to tell their stories, among them Dowler's parents and many celebrities. Singer Charlotte Church said 33 articles about her were the product of phone hacking, including one that revealed her father's affair and cocaine use which was published despite the paper knowing her mother had recently attempted suicide.
Baffled about how private information reached the press, actress Sienna Miller told of accusing family and friends of leaking information. Actor Hugh Grant proclaimed himself a victim while distinguishing between "excellent British journalism and tabloids who had lost their ethical moorings in the past 30 years". He has become a spokesman for media standards campaign group Hacked Off, and famously bugged a former News of the World reporter who spoke candidly of illegal practices.
There have been many resignations. Those arrested include Brooks, Andy Coulson, another former News of the World editor, and Kuttner, who Davies had debated against on the BBC four years earlier.
Murdoch's bid to take over British pay television company BSkyB (he presently owns 39 per cent) was withdrawn as his media empire and political influence came under unprecedented scrutiny. Ofcom, the competition authority for the United Kingdom's communications sector, fired its own warning, saying that it had "a duty to be satisfied on an ongoing basis that the holder of a broadcasting licence is 'fit and proper'."
Jeremy Hunt, the minister who dealt with the bid has been at pains to insist intense lobbying by News Corp of his office had not affected his impartiality.
There is much history in Britain of the tabloids' abuse of privacy and consequent calls to impose regulation. Each time that has been fended off with industry promises to behave, and perhaps because successive governments believed they were dependant on Murdoch's favour.
In 1993, the Calcutt report concluded self-regulation was ineffective and recommended a statutory tribunal. Within weeks of the report being issued, The Sun ran an intrusive photo of a sick celebrity. Roy Greenslade, who was editor of a rival paper, said the rationale could be explained in a word: sales. "Were we first, did we get an exclusive and will Doris tell Maude The Sun has got an amazing picture? ... I bet sales shot up. Even though 99 per cent of the public will think it is an intrusion, 99 per cent of the public will also be discussing the picture. This is the ruling ethos, not taste, or the law or whether it is an intrusion of privacy."
This time may be different. No previous scandal has been as deeply or widely damaging. Karl Grossman, a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, accused Murdoch of building the most "dishonest, unprincipled and corrupt" media empire in history and of "making a travesty of what journalism is supposed to be about".
Carl Bernstein, one of the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal, compared the News of the World hacking affair with the behaviour that brought down president Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Both, he said, were "shattering cultural moments of huge consequence" and both were "about corruption at the highest levels, about the corruption of the process of a free society".
Rupert Murdoch, wrote Wheatcroft, "has gone from Svengali to Tar Baby, sticky and tainting to the touch". Close association with Murdoch's empire may yet cost David Cameron the prime ministership.
Cameron's school friend, Charlie Brooks, his closest media ally Rebekah Brooks, and his communications director of four years, Coulson (who was appointed after resigning as editor of the News of the World following Goodman's conviction for phone hacking) have all been charged or questioned regarding perjury or conspiring to pervert the course of justice.
The scandal has primed debate about reform in New Zealand and Australia which are both reviewing media regulation.
The Australian inquiry has proposed a statutory body, funded by Government but somehow kept at arm's length from it. It would have the power to order corrections, apologies or a right of reply and be backed by the courts in case of refusal.
"Scratch the surface of this proposal and you find a harsh new regime which stands to damage Australia's reputation as a democracy," Bond University professor of journalism Mark Pearson says. If a news blogger or publisher disagreed with an order they would be cited for contempt and tried in a court with the power to fine or jail them.
Pearson offers the possible example of an environmental magazine or website facing jail or financial ruin if it refuses to publish an apology "to a mining magnate for the ethical breach of publishing a 'biased' and 'inaccurate' report about the company's waste disposal practises, based on sensitive material from confidential sources. Small publishers and bloggers might well be bullied into corrections or apologies because they [lack] time or resources to counter a contempt charge in the courts."
New Zealand's Law Commission was asked by the previous justice minister, Simon Power, to look at the accountability of news media, particularly websites operating below the radar of the law. It has not come up with a way to stop rogue sites flouting court orders other than to offer the carrot of respectability and recognition as news media in law if they voluntarily submit to a regulatory regime.
The commission proposes a single regulator for all media to reflect the trend it calls media convergence, meaning the internet is blurring the division between print and broadcasting. The commission believes it would be voluntary for websites but possibly compulsory for newspapers and broadcasters. They would be levied to help fund it and help it be independent from both industry and politics. It would be based on the existing Press Council with the difference of having a statutory basis, perhaps like the Ombudsman, but not recourse to the courts as in the Australian proposal.
Media academics say New Zealand is free of the worst of British tabloid journalism. University of Auckland academic Joe Atkinson recently told the Listener, that though journalism here was following the general trend downmarket to boost audience, it had "neither the cream of journalism nor the dregs of tabloid journalism that is playing itself out in the UK at the moment".
There was chequebook journalism, mainly in the women's magazines, and the occasional questionable practices and dubious sources, but it was "by and large free of the worst of Murdoch".
Dr Wayne Hope, associate professor and co-director of the Journalism, Media and Democracy Research Centre at AUT University says it is naive to think questionable behaviour doesn't occur here. There are one-off examples, he says, by individual journalists using less than ethical techniques such as accessing private Facebook pages.
He says the systematic use of private investigators to intrude on people's lives was "always likely" in the tabloid environment of Britain. The growing capacity of social media, the internet and phone technology made it possible while the imperative of maintaining profit margins via populist stories, particularly about celebrities, provided the impetus: "A perfect combination," says Hope.
A few years ago, the journalists' union, the EPMU, held a conference it called Journalism Matters. It highlighted the media's role in democracy and signalled its concern about what the collapse of the old commercial model underpinning journalism and the rise of social media might mean for standards.
"It has put pressure on to be a lot more populist and our fear and concern has been that that is diminishing and undermining the quality of journalism," says Brent Edwards, convener of the union's Print and Media Industry Council. "You have to be careful about any shift in ethical standards."
The union was for many decades the only player in the print media to have a code of ethics. It supports a single regulator to replace the current arrangement where the print watchdog, the Press Council, is an industry-funded independent body and an advocate for press freedom; and broadcasting is overseen by the Broadcasting Standards Authority, a Government-funded statutory body.
The union doesn't mind a new regulator having a statutory footing but says independence from Government must be guaranteed and it also "can't be seen to kowtow to either the industry or corporate owners".
Though John Key complained of "News of the World tactics" after his conversation with Act leader John Banks was recorded during an election media stunt, and recently commented that the media seemed more aggressive, reform is not on the Government's agenda.
Labour wants the issue debated and the Greens broadcasting policy is to have a single regulator for print, broadcasting and advertising. Though it says it prefers self-regulation, it would make the new body answerable to the Government. It also wants media ownership laws reviewed and greater transparency regarding corporate lobbyists.
Some in Britain are cautioning against overreaction there. Education secretary Michael Gove said "a few slips in standards" was the price society had to pay for a "precious" freedom of speech. "We should think carefully about the effects of regulations," he said. "Is it the right remedy to the particular problem."
His comments may be seen in the context that he was a leader writer for Murdoch's Times before he became an MP. But former conservative cabinet minister David Mellor had the same message when he appeared at the Leveson inquiry, and he speaks as a victim of the tabloids.
Soon after his warning in 1989 that "the popular press is drinking in the last chance saloon", his affair with Antonia da Sancha was revealed. That, and a story that he had accepted free flights from a woman with connections to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, led him to resign from cabinet.
Mellor defended the right of the press to scrutinise the private lives of politicians, who he warned would "slither off into the undergrowth given half a chance". Having his life splashed across the tabloids was, he said, "a small price to pay for the bigger benefit, which is scrutiny".By Phil Taylor Email Phil