Biggest moments of 2011 #6 Hackers and clangers
It is impossible as an employee of Rupert Murdoch to offer any thoughts on the phone hacking scandal in the UK without being accused of being a company patsy and probably also a sycophant, even a liar.
On a personal and professional level I have found some of the revelations which have come out of the UK to be troubling at the very least, and appalling at their absolute worst. It is also the case however that two of the biggest and most damaging allegations against the company aren’t actually true at all.
From where I sit, working for the Australian arm of this media business, the whole affair is starting to look like a psychotic and reckless fight-to-the-death by British journalists who, in that hyper-competitive media culture, have often cut corners or chanced their arms to be first with the news.
Sometimes they have done so with little regard for whether that news has been completely correct, newsworthy or in the public interest.
The first point I would make about the British media and the Australian media is that there is a cavernous divide in the culture. That point is best underscored by the fact that, this year, two retired Supreme Court judges audited all of our mastheads over the past five years and found no evidence of phone-hacking, bribery of public officials, or anything which has been unearthed at News International.
Six years ago I spent a very illuminating and entertaining fortnight on placement with The Sun in London. The page one story on my first day was the brilliant exclusive headed “Harry the Nazi” which depicted the third in line to the throne, whose great-grandmother had rallied Londoners during The Blitz, attending a fancy dress party with his rich mates dressed in a swastika armband. It was a cracking story, wholly in the public interest, a powerful (and funny) tabloid front page, and an example of the one thing I love more than anything about this company – its hostility towards the establishment, its mistrust of authority and institutions, its instinctive dislike for toffs who get ahead not on the basis of ability but birthright.
These instincts are part of the media culture which exists in Australia, but there are other aspects which are completely alien here. One night while drinking with journalists in London – not just from News International – we got talking about the Bali terrorist attack in which 88 Australians died. I told the British journos how we had an embarrassing moment after the bombing when we ran a front-page photograph of a young bloke tragically killed at the Sari Club, the last picture of him alive, where he was cuddling a young Aussie girl in his hotel pool that Saturday afternoon.
His best mate rang The Daily Telegraph on the day we published, and politely asked me as the newspaper’s chief of staff if we could take the photo off the website and not use it in print again. This was because the poor young bloke was actually in Bali on his buck’s week and his fiancee, already shattered with grief, had become even more distressed when she saw a photograph suggesting her would-be-husband was cuddling up with another woman.
The British journos exclaimed that it was such a terrific follow-up – suggesting headlines such as “Busted in Bali!” and so forth - and laughingly dismissing me as a ponse when I explained we had immediately deleted the image from our website and photo library and did no follow-up at all.
The cut-throat competition of the UK was on display again this week with the battle between News International and the left-leaning Guardian newspaper over the coverage of the phone hacking scandal. The Guardian has been leading the charge against the Murdoch press but this week it was revealed that its most morally damning accusation, that the News of the World had hacked and deleted messages from young murder victim Milly Dowler’s mobile, creating false hope for her parents that she was alive, was actually false.
The Guardian had originally splashed this story all over its front page. The explosive nature of the allegation, which was sickening, was more than anything the driving force for the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry into the British press, and the closure of the News of the World newspaper by Rupert Murdoch. It now turns out that it never happened at all.
The Guardian does a good line in sanctimony and had a chance here to take the moral high ground by running a massive correction of its rolled-gold clanger. It chose not to, doing the very thing it so often accuses News International of doing, by burying its largely incomprehensible correction and going into full dissembling mode to say the essence of the story still stood.
Some of the story still does stand. No-one should have been listening to any messages on this poor girl’s phone, or indeed anyone’s phone. But the most damning aspect of the story was a total fiction. As was a second bombshell allegation, that The Sun newspaper illegally learned and recklessly revealed that former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s son had cystic fibrosis. The story had actually been written with Brown’s consent after the parent of another child with the illness had urged the paper to bring attention to the issue. Indeed after The Sun ran the story donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation jumped from £600,000 in 2006 to £1,124,000 in the year of publication.
The dispute between the Guardian and The Sun might just prove that deep down all journalists are scumbags who will go to print with dodgy information to suit their agenda, and cover their behinds when it all goes pear-shaped.
Sitting here in Australia it is a culture that strikes me as alien, even though we have our own little media inquiry in this country too, which in itself was kicked along by a banner headline in a British newspaper which turned out to be nonsense. And hilariously enough, there is only one newspaper in this country which has been implicated in the illegal hacking of the private details of individuals. We don’t own it. It’s the Melbourne Age, raided by the police this week, and it ran more breathless and indignant copy on the UK phone hacking scandal than any other Australian newspaper.
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