News of the World: we need more than a public inquiry

Natalie Fenton calls for a new framework for news in the public interest

July 8, 2011
5 min read


Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London


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You can arrest Andy Coulson, you can sack two hundred journalists and take the News of the World off the face of the earth – but the problem won’t go away.

News is in crisis, but believing that it is a crisis stemming from the lies, deceitfulness and illegality of hacking is misplaced. Understanding the roots of the crisis requires a critical interrogation of the terms on which newspapers in the UK operate.

In the last decade news media have seen many changes. There has been a tremendous growth in the number of news outlets available including the advent of, and rapid increase in, free papers, the emergence of 24 hour television news and the popularisation of online and mobile platforms. Newspaper circulation and readership levels are at an all-time low.

News is produced and distributed at a faster rate than ever before and often takes place on several platforms at once. This has provided the newspaper industry with some real challenges. In a corporate news world it is now difficult to maintain profit margins and shareholder returns unless you employ fewer journalists. But fewer journalists with more space to fill means doing more work in less time often leading to a greater use of unattributed rewrites of press agency or public relations material: the cut and paste practice that Nick Davies famously called ‘churnalism’.

If you combine the faster and shallower corporate journalism of the digital age with the need to pull in readers for commercial rather than journalistic reasons it is not difficult to see how the values of professional journalism are quickly cast aside in order to indulge in sensationalism, trade in gratuitous spectacles and deal in dubious emotionalism.

The culture of the corporate, tabloid newsroom embodies this practice to such an extent that Rebekah Brooks wouldn’t even have needed to give the green light to phone hacking – it’s just part and parcel of what is expected. The net result is denigration of the professional life and integrity of news journalists, leading to a detrimental impact on the quality of news journalism and a consequent damage to our democracy.

This latest scandal is shocking not because of the awfulness that the practice of phone hacking is and the lack of humanity it has revealed but because it has exposed the heart of a system that is deeply flawed. Giving more powers to the Press Complaints Commission

would be a sticking plaster on a much deeper wound that will continue to fester until once more the smell becomes unbearable and another scandal erupts.

In a climate where journalists’ jobs are ever more insecure it takes a very brave journalist to blow the whistle or even ‘self-regulate’.

Self-regulation has become the sacred mantra associated with the freedom of the press – the only means to ensure governments can’t interfere in, dictate the terms and thwart the practice of journalism. But this denies the influence and power of a corporate culture that wreaks its own havoc and sets its own agenda often more blatantly than any democratic government would ever dare. If you are relatively powerless (say a journalist in relation to an editor) then self-regulation can be meaningless if the person in power does not share your views.

The question we really need to ask is: what do we want news for and how can it be delivered in the future? This is what Jeremy Hunt should be concerned with in his deliberations over the future of BSkyB, and what the forthcoming Communications Act in 2013 should be designed to address. How the production of news is changing, how it is funded, how it is received and how it can prosper must be put at the centre of this debate.

So go ahead and have a public inquiry into phone hacking, but let’s do the job properly and also have a Media Commission that asks the real questions:

1. What is in the public interest in relation to the provision of news for democracy to thrive?

2. How can we provide the environment that is required to enable journalists to do the job most of them want to do and to do it with integrity?

3. With the prospect of a new Communications Act on the horizon, can we regulate for the relationship between news and democracy while retaining independent journalism and freedom of the press, and if so, how?

The news is no ordinary product. It is indelibly linked to the practice of democracy. When the product of news is broken the practice of democracy suffers. The relationship between news and democracy works best when journalists are given the freedom (and resources) to do the job most journalists want to do – to scrutinize, to monitor, hold to account, interrogate power, to facilitate and maintain deliberation.

But freedom in this context does not simply mean freedom from censorship and interference from government so frequently associated with the term ‘freedom of the press’; it also means freedom from the constraints and limitations of a thoroughly corporate culture. In neoliberal democracies the power of the market is just as significant as the power of government. In the UK, there is certainly no rush to regulate for a healthy relationship between news media and democracy, yet there is plenty of urgency about the need to deregulate media for the benefit of the market.

The phone hacking saga shows that a marketised and corporatised media cannot be relied upon to deliver the conditions for deliberative democracy to flourish. Markets do not have democratic intent at their core. When markets fail or come under threat or simply become too bullish, ethical journalistic practice is swept aside in pursuit of competitive gain and financial stability.

Yes, we need a public inquiry – but what we really need is a whole new framework for news in the public interest.

Natalie Fenton is is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London

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Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London


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