An issue with the whole phone hacking scandal is that the background, the details, the causes can be picked over endlessly: the culprits can be tracked down, they can be charged and convicted of wrongdoing, even those in charge can be brought to book, or at least made to look like a pair of silly schoolboys sitting behind a desk.
None of which will stop a similar thing happening again. Perhaps not phones next time, perhaps it will be in a way that no-one has even thought of yet, but something like it will happen again. This is something that rises to some extent out of the nature of democracy, at least as we understand it at present.
The Wikipedia entry on Media Accountability sums up one difficulty.
“Media accountability is a phrase that refers to the general (especially western) belief that mass media has to be accountable in the public’s interest – that is, they are expected to behave in certain ways that contribute to the public good. The concept is not clearly defined, and often collides with commercial interests of media owners; legal issues, such as the constitutional right to the freedom of the press in the U.S.; and governmental concerns about public security and order.”
Anecdotally the guiding hands behind media companies, will point to libel laws as an adequate control over what the press prints, and the other media says or shows. Any attempt to impose external accountability on the media, runs slap bang into freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, and issues of democracy.
The problem is of course that this is absolutely right, a free press is one of the essential hallmarks of a democracy. One purpose of this is that this provides another check on government, holds politicians to account.
One difficulty for me is that in this mix is the legal profession, who of course price all but the wealthy out of the market for complaining about things the media says about them. In practice this means that the media can say what the hell they like about poor people. This has an important implication for the practices of the media as a whole. For one thing it means that if society is to rely principally on the laws of Libel, in practice in the majority of instances, the media in all it’s forms is only accountable to the rich. No Win No Fee, dilutes this, a little, but how many lawyers can devote the same resources to fighting a case against a media giant, that the media giant can bring to bear fighting back.
For me this boils down into one simple question: Is a free press, really free, if it is not accountable? And accountable to all not just a few. Or is it just a mechanism for authoritarians, borderline dictators, and corrupt or antisocial organisational cultures, to assert control, through manipulation of the reading, and more importantly, voting, public.
I do not believe it can any longer be argued that people can vote with their feet, either not viewing or buying services, products or papers they disagree with. It is clear that media giants can bring too much psychology into play to influence their readership for them to be given ongoing carte blanche in what they say, and how, to who, and when.
My personal inclination is to regard events such as those that have unfolded in the News Corporation empire of Rupert Murdoch, as complex. It is next to impossible to point to an individual, or a single event as a cause, rather there are many events and many individuals involved. All contribute to processes which lead to effects. Granted some are more guilty than others, but all contribute to outcomes, sometimes by doing nothing. Which is the reason why Edmund Burke said” the only thing required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
In the UK of course there is the press complaints commission, http://www.pcc.org.uk/ And the Office of Communications, (Ofcom) http://www.ofcom.org.uk/. Who provide some recourse for those displeased with the media, but what real teeth do they have?
It often seems to me at least, that the only media organisation in the UK that seems to respond to the judgements of these bodies with any seriousness is the BBC, who appear to go to great trouble to broadcast judgements both for and against it. I could not say with my hand on my heart that I have noticed any other organisation taking the trouble to really publicise judgements it has been involved in, either for or against. If I remember correctly there is a requirement that they do, but the form this takes is not prescribed too tightly, and certainly with newspapers my experience is that there is a tendency to put negative judgements derived from erroneous front page headlines, on page 23, underneath the advert for the dating agency, and the odd contraption which promises to change your life in some indefinable way.
I have no idea what the situation is in the US exactly, but it can’t be awfully good, since some of the reporting I have heard about things said by some radio and TV commentators in the US has me open-mouthed in horror at the misogyny and borderline racism, expressed at the very least, and some of the conspiracy theories given currency are outlandish in the extreme.
Now there are those that worry that government control of the media, is a very sticky slope, and to a certain extent this is true, however in democracies there are checks and balances to ensure that government control of anything is reasonable and proper. I am also aware that too much government is possibly a bad thing, however I find myself asking: What is the purpose of government?
The only answer that makes any sense to me is: To serve the people. There are checks and balances to limit powers, and to ensure that government is run in the interests of the people. This is why government has three branches, an executive, a legislature, and the judiciary. The precise form of the division is different in different countries, but essentially the same divisions exist in all the major democracies.
Surely then in the light of a scandal such as has beset Murdoch and son, it is not beyond the creativity of the executive to conceive legislation to be passed and periodically reviewed by the legislature and enforced by the judiciary under which the press must demonstrate their accountability for the freedom they rightly enjoy, to the duly elected representatives of the people’s interests.
And if the licensing authorities, already have this power then someone should be making them accountable for not exercising it right now.