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Journalistic ethics

News of the World: bereaved relatives of 7/7 victims 'had phones hacked' - Telegraph.

I was tempted to leave the space beneath my heading blank, save for the link, but that would hardly have been fair. It's wrong except in jest (and this is no laughing matter) to condemn a whole group at one stroke. That's true whether the group comprises bankers, lawyers, journalists or even politicians. I will not descend to Andrew Marr's level.

There are ethical journalists. Of course there are. Some of them are even ethical at the occasional cost of their political loyalties. I am sure for example that Carl Bernstein would have been just as dogged in pursuit of a Democrat President. And that Pravda on the Potomac's publisher, Katharine Graham, would have been just as supportive of his work. Give me some time and I will give you a British example. While I am thinking, please feel free to suggest names in the comments.

When next I read or hear a journalist's denunciation of the ethics of the City of London however, I shall remember this story. I understand and share the indignation being expressed across the nation, but lack enthusiasm for the measures proposed. I fear that, as always, the wrong 'uns have spoiled it for the rest of us and that that the outcome of this affair will serve dark forces. For example, as I write, Ed Milliband at PMQs is in full cry, not for journalistic probity, but for political revenge and political advantage. It's not as disgusting as what the News of the World did, but his exploitation of public concern for his own advantage is still pretty sickening. And this is just the beginning.

Those calling for a  boycott of the News of the World don't read it. Those who read it, won't care; at least not until the story acquires a salacious slant - preferably involving a naughty vicar and a sexy bacon-slicer from the Co-op. Those calling for the a boycott of News International in its entirety have, I suspect, an agenda that has little to do with journalistic ethics. Tony Blair's best mate Rupert Murdoch has it in his own hands to cleanse his tabloid stables and he is well hard enough to do it quickly and well. Having followed his career for many years, I imagine he is waiting only to be sure that when he strikes, he does not need to strike again, thus dragging the story out. As a newspaper man of many decades standing, he has nothing to learn from Alistair Campbell about killing an embarrassing story. There are plenty of journalists to replace anyone he chooses to fire and his enemies are already so numerous that he need not fear to add a few embittered ex-employees to their number.

Crimes have been committed here, as have civil wrongs. There must be prosecutions and I am sure there will be civil suits. Those who are liable (whether personally or vicariously) should be held to criminal and financial account. But I sincerely hope there will be no new laws to limit the freedom of the press and no wasteful public enquiries. What was done was already illegal. The "something" that everyone is baying "must be done" is already provided by law. A public enquiry (which the PM sadly seemed to concede today) will be yet another waste of public funds. Now is one of those recurring times to remember that laws are evils in themselves. New ones should only be made when they are lesser evils.

As to the ethical question, of course journalists should have standards. Of course they should be prepared to stand by them, even at the risk of not being able to pay their mortgages. I make no excuses for the conduct of the News of the World's journalists and editors in this case. I merely observe (as is equally true of The Guardian's readers who are defending a self-confessed liar because he lied to make their heroes look good) that the morals of a newspaper are those of its readers. You simply don't sell newspapers by telling your readers what they don't want to hear. Of the professional media outlets, only the BBC, compulsorily funded even by those who despise it, has the privilege to set its own line.

Britain's yellow press is as it is because of Britain's moral bankruptcy. We should look to ourselves, and the choices we make each day - both as to the newspapers we read and the television programmes we view - and then acknowledge these bastard journalists as our offspring.


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