Alan Cocker: Despite Murdoch the press remains a force for good

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Investigative journalism still must be done and new media aren't doing it, writes Alan Cocker, head of the School of Communication Studies at Auckland University of Technology.

The phone-hacking scandal unfolding in Britain is now well and truly out of the bottle and its repercussions are spreading from the deceased News of the World through the British body politic.

Now under intense examination is the relationship between the media and politicians, the media and the police and the assumptions and practices of the power elite.

The issue has raised fears about the level of incipient corruption in Britain, and at the very least will bring about a review of media control and regulation. This is the dark side of journalism and media power. However, there is also a positive aspect to this story concerning the continuing importance of that old medium, the newspaper, which has been largely overlooked.

It was a newspaper journalist who pursued this story with dogged determination over more than two years. As an experienced Guardian reporter, Nick Davies drew on his extensive network of sources that he had cultivated during about 30 years at the paper.

These were people who trusted him as an ethical practitioner but, most importantly, who realised that this was an ongoing investigation supported by a paper prepared to give him the resources to pursue the story over time in the public interest.

As he portrays it, it was a textbook piece of journalism, "a great story about the abuse of power" and "that's what all journalists want to expose, isn't it?"

There is irony here. The newspaper is meant to be a dying media form, diminishing in power and importance. Murdoch's financial advisers may have advised him to forsake print for satellite television and social media, but they were talking financial power rather than political and social influence.

The newspaper is still the medium which is seen to most often set or lead the news agenda. And it is the newspaper which most often does the investigative work which breaks the big stories.

Elements of the press still look beyond the daily news cycle and have journalists like Davies who follow a story over time. Only they can build up the specialist knowledge and contacts which are so vital in prising open the veil of secrecy and subterfuge protecting those who might be abusing their power.

Sadly the ability, resources and experience required to fulfil this vital "fourth estate" role of the media appear to be diminishing in the face of competitive pressures as "old media" struggle with new for audiences and thus revenue.

In the case of the News of the World, catching the attention of audiences took a sinister, illegal and utterly unethical turn. Yet investigative work in the public interest needs to be done. And the new media are not doing this job.

Internet news outlets do not have the income and thus the resources to employ sufficiently experienced professional journalists. They rely on unpaid or poorly paid contributors and aggregating material from other media forms.

Even the relatively older medium of television has a short-span news cycle, demands regarding the visual strength of any story and sees an ongoing trend of diminishing coverage of harder political and economic stories to make way for human interest, celebrity and other stories less demanding of its audience.

Nearly 50 years ago, Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan, coined a phrase which became a misunderstood cliche: The medium is the message. The point McLuhan was making was that the content of the new electronic media was relatively unimportant. What mattered more was that you were watching or peripherally engaging with it, and this displaced doing something else.

However, the newspaper and reading predated McLuhan's focus on the coming television and electronic media era.

In our increasingly mediatised democracy politicians will shape their presentation, image and delivery to fit the requirements of the electronic media but what they still fear is the judgment of the press.

Hence Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron all sought an understanding with the Murdoch organisation not because of his holdings in satellite television or other new media but because he owned Britain's largest tabloid newspaper, the Sun.

The scandal in Britain is a timely reminder of the power of the press, a power that, if used unethically, can cause great harm. However, as Davies and the Guardian have shown, despite our plethora of media forms today newspapers are still the pre-eminent media form for journalistic investigation in the public interest.

- NZ Herald

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