How long has this been going on?

As the police probe into criminality in the British media broaden its scope, it's time to ask what reforms are needed.

    In January 2007, the News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, went to prison for illegally accessing the voicemails of members of the royal family [GALLO/GETTY]

    London, United Kingdom -  In January 2007, the News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, went to prison for illegally accessing the voicemails of members of the royal family. For more than two years, News International's executives insisted that the two men had been running an independent operation. But in April 2011, the company admitted that its "previous inquiries failed to uncover important evidence" of wrongdoing. Three months later, the News of the World was closed down and the rogue reporter/private investigator story was in tatters.

    Since then it has become obvious that the scandal goes far beyond voicemail hacking and involves more than one newspaper. The police are investigating evidence that journalists hacked into computers and made corrupt payments to public officials. They have so far arrested some 30 people, including journalists at the Sun as well the News of the World.

    In response to the sensational revelations of last summer, the government launched an inquiry into "the culture, practices and ethics of the press". This inquiry has, among many other things, shone a light on the structure of editorial decision-making. Last week, Ian Edmondson told the inquiry that "it's not a democracy at a newspaper. It's autocratic." Similarly, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists recounted how one journalist, speaking anonymously, had told her that the newsroom had "a real military chain of command … you did what you were told and it took a pretty brave person to take a stand".

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    We are still very far from learning the full extent of the criminality in the British media and its impact on the country's public life. But what we already know would have been dismissed as a paranoid fantasy only a few years ago. Hundreds of people, including politicians and lawyers, as well as celebrities and members of the public, were being spied on by employees of a news organisation that enjoyed close links with the police and other powerful elements in the British state.

    For decades, British politicians were terrified of the tabloid press in general and the Sun and the News of the World in particular. By the early nineties, both Labour and the Conservatives supported policies favoured by News International's CEO, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch now likes to joke on Twitter that "maybe Brits have too many holidays for broke country!" But maybe the country wouldn't be so broke if its political class had paid less attention to Rupert Murdoch's demands for deregulation and a business-friendly approach to taxation.

    There is no suggestion that Murdoch knew that his employees were breaking the law on an industrial scale. But politicians would have been reckless if they had not taken the company's hard-hitting investigative techniques into account when planning their careers. The question is unavoidable. Did the country's politicians act as they did out of fear of a kind of emergent, implicit blackmail? After all, in rigid hierarchies like News International, employees have a tendency to work towards what they think their superiors want.

    This leads to the next question, the really key one; how do we prevent the media from wielding unaccountable, even criminal, power in what is, nominally at least, a democracy? There is one reform that will make media institutions subject to meaningful oversight without undermining their independence. This reform would have the added benefit of allowing us to open up other matters of legitimate public interest to more intense and sustained scrutiny, should we wish to do so.

    We need only take some modest percentage of the vast public subsidies to journalism and allow every citizen an equal say in how it is spent. Direct democratic patronage of this kind would give individual journalists the chance to establish a reputation and an income independent of the corporate newsrooms, with their military chains of command, their bullying and their pressures to conform.

    With a hundred million pounds or so, we could support a truly independent culture of investigation and public interest research. Furthermore, we would no longer be wholly reliant on the vulnerable employees of large organisations for information about civic life. The executives who run the BBC and the rest of the UK media aren't terribly keen on the prospect of the public trampling all over their editorial prerogatives. But journalists, in private at least, quite like the idea of being able to ask their readers for the funds they need to run effective investigations. But, remember, at the moment they must do what they are told in newsrooms that are run as autocracies. They have little say in the kinds of stories they pursue, or in how they pursue them. Very few of them are willing to speak openly about this reality.

    If we want journalism that supports democracy we have to stop listening to what journalists say in their current, captive state. Then we have to figure out what they would tell us if they were free.

    Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize.

    Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

    SOURCE: AL Jazeera



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