Cops, Robbers and Scoop.

I’ve  found myself thinking back to childhood, the games that were played in the playground, and some of the board games we used to play in the family.
The boys lived in a vivid imaginative world, cops, robbers, Indians, sleuths.  When it rained and we played indoors, there were a handful of board games, Monopoly, cheat, and we also had scoop, a competitive game about journalists getting their story.
The people who are the top of the journalistic profession now were brought up with the same influences. I have been thinking to about some of the impulses that have driven the creation the kind of press we have now.
The industry is driven by powerful individuals – and their character is reflected in the papers they produce.
Amongst the snippets of information about Rupert Murdoch that have emerged there are a few inconsequential matters that stood out for me.  There was the tree house, which is where his father apparently insisted he should sleep during part of his childhood, to “toughen him up”.
We have had the fascinating glimpse back 40 years to one of Murdochs early stories covering the fugitive Ronnie Biggs in Australia, where Murdoch, who had obviously developed his links with the police very early in his career persuaded the police to verify the finger print on documents sent to him by Ronnie Biggs. This was of great help to Murdoch in publishing a verified story, and apparently of help in funding Biggs to remain on the run, but apparently of no great help to the police in catching their man!
One of Murdoch’s contacts testifies to his genuine interest in his papers, and the detailed questions he would ask people about how they got their stories. He apparently took real pleasure in the process of journalism. – did he enjoy the games and stratagems used to “land” a story?
There is also a moment during Murdoch’s evidence to the select committee, when he talked about his father. A lot of people wondered why on earth he was doing this, a plea for sympathy, the ramblings of an old man- but to my mind it was central. I believe that this is a man who is still at the age of 80 trying to live up to his father’s expectations, and who had been confronted with the very uncomfortable realisation that after having “succeeded” in building an empire which met his father’s expectations, that the quality of what he had done had been weighed and found wanting.
It is of course ridiculous to suppose that Rupert Murdoch could or would have had any idea of the criminal activities being carried out in his name, but he does have a responsibility for the culture of the titles that he owns, the culture that produced this behaviour,  and for the apparently ramshackle nature of corporate governance within these organisations.
I think it is also ridiculous to suppose that phone hacking occurred only within the News of the World, or that phone hacking is necessarily the most serious abuse that exists within the press.
What I am pretty certain that we do have, and here I am back to the excitable boys in the playground, is a culture that puts far too strong an emphasis on “sleuthing”, and finding out what is hidden. Journalism – is perhaps seen by many as fairly dull stuff, involving a lot of very boring and hard work, but “investigative journalism” is all together much more exciting.
Operation Motorman shows us that there were many papers involved in the use of private investigators . The BBC Radio 4 programme “the report” indicates that if papers are outsourcing fact finding to people who are not under the direct control of the paper, then you can quite quickly get to a point where just about anything goes.
More recently we have had all the interest in MPs expenses, where it was the idea that things were being hidden that kept the interest of the press alive in the very dull details of what all bit a handful of MPs were actually being paid. That all began with stolen information being shared with a newspaper. All justified in the name of public interest of course. It is certainly not a bad idea to challenge the key institutions of our country, but I think that most people would now say that the press did in many cases get this entirely out of proportion, and that they certainly did so to political effect.
 There has been Wikileaks with all the excitement that that entailed.
There was the huge fuss surrounding the “climategate emails”, which we now hear may have involved Neil Wallis, Andy Coulson’s deputy editor at News of the World. This was important. The leaking of hidden emails gave an interest and odd credibility to the idea of a conspiracy to exaggerate the threat of global warming, and it did so at the crucial moment to destabilise the Copenhagen conference.  So this had the ingredients of hidden information, being using in a misleading way, which confused people, and this had a political effect.
In the case that I am close to, I have a ring side seat to watch the process of journalists “getting” a story.   The Stafford Hospital story is interesting in that it does involve two completely separate elements that became merged through the press.
The press chose to champion the campaign of a small group of people who had found themselves deeply frustrated by the complaints process at the hospital and throughout the NHS. They had every right to do this. They then got caught up in the distinctly messy business of a set of mortality figures which were leaked to the press because they had been deliberately excluded from the Health care commission report on the hospital.  Like anything that is “hidden” this immediately excited undue attention.

If the press had chosen to print this leaked information with clear acknowledgements that it was leaked and clear explanations of why it was hidden, this would have treated readers with respect, and allowed them to make their own judgement. No paper has adequately done this.  The nationals for the most part do not even know the doubtful source of the material. All the press throughout the country has simply accepted this seriously flawed and misleading information at face value, and it has been used for political purposes.  The widely criticised “reforms” to the NHS have been “sold” with reference to the public perception of Stafford created by the press coverage.

The Inquiry was convened  to try and deal with the inconsistency, to explore how it could be possible for very large numbers of people to have died in the way these figures indicated, whilst no one saw anything out of the ordinary. What we have seen is that there are many indications that Stafford suffered problems that are real but widespread.  We have also seen quite a few indications that the boring nuts and bolts of corporate governance is not fine tuned enough to pick up some of the basic problems of patient care, and needs to be strengthened in Stafford and throughout the NHS.       
Occasionally there has been a little glimmer of excitement for the press. There was for instance the evidence of Professor Jarman, which showed his anger at what he perceived to be the “gaming” of his system by the West midlands hospitals. I watched with interest the excitement of the press pack picking up this story. It was the evening headlines on the BBC and next day in the press. Unfortunately no one was in the press gallery the following day when the Counsel put a rather different interpretation and infinitely more plausible explanation of events, and when the Chairman of the Inquiry indicated his serious displeasure that the press continued to trot out the misleading mortality figures.
After so many months of an inquiry there is very little that is “hidden” about Stafford, apart from the fact that the story is still not being told in a well rounded way by the press.  The real story that we can now see if we choose to look has I am afraid very little of the excitement of the story that the press and media believed existed. The decision of the press not to openly tell the full story is or course a very interesting “hidden” story in its own right!
The press interest is still focused on one witness that they want to see produced, A witness who is unlikely ever to appear.
With the Phone hacking and Murdoch story – there is so much that remains hidden that people will remain deeply interested. There are bin bags full of unread notes, potentially thousands of victims, and the archive of “smoking gun” emails at the wonderfully named Harbottle and Lewis lawyers.  There is all the jigsaw of who knew what and when and who can be blamed, alongside a fair bit of understandable political anger about decades of dirty tricks. There is the human story of people who want to settle scores.
This is what will hold peoples interest, but the really important matters here are what happens as a result of all of this. We will get to see what went wrong with corporate governance? What needs to be done to ensure that individual newspaper proprietors do not exert too much influence? What needs to be done to ensure the ethics and quality of reporting? How do you ensure that the links between politicians and the press is not a malign influence on both?
Of course journalists will always get caught up in the excitement of the stories they tell, this is in the nature of the profession, and papers are in part entertainment, but it would be really good if in the wake of the Hacking scandal that papers begin to redefine their role.  Will papers continue to focus on what is good for their proprietors and the proprietor’s friends, or will some papers see it as their job to look at the interests of the community as a whole? Could papers act to allow a wide range of voices to be effectively heard, or will the proprietors still wish to be selective? Will there be papers in ten years time, and if so what will they look like?
Leverson will I hope require the press to do the boring stuff of looking at their own corporate governance and their own standards.
We are entering into a world where there will be many shadowy companies delivering many of the services which used once upon a time to be public. There is a major job here for good journalists all over the country to be the eyes and ears of the public and tell us more about what is happening within these companies. Some of it might even involve a bit of sleuthing!   

Posted on July 22, 2011, in climategate, corporate governance, murdoch, operation motorman, ronnie biggs. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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