Across the country local press reporters will have every reason to reflect on the long-term impact of Rupert Murdoch’s forty-year stewardship of some of Britain’s most popular daily and Sunday newspapers.
Whether for or against the introduction of a Leveson-style press regulator, journalists past and present will have a view as the evidence unfolds during the News of the World phone hacking trial at the Old Bailey which is due to start on Monday 28 October.
Murdoch’s lasting impact on British journalism is that he more than any other proprietor has been responsible for encouraging the monetisation of the most basic function of our trade – the gathering of news.
Reporters of my generation, who trained on local evening and weekly newspapers, were not accustomed to being asked: “How much?” “What’s it worth?” whenever they sought interviews or photographs.
Local journalists tell me such routines are a commonplace experience today. People involved in human interest stories realise their contributions might have a value even though their assistance in providing information to the local newspaper might be for the local good, perhaps preventing mishaps or misfortune for neighbours or other residents.
My reflections on reporting news in the 1960s, which by today’s precarious standards was a golden era for the local press, might be misplaced but in those years there was, more often than not, a genuine pride in getting mentioned in the local paper.
The thought of paying for stories never even entered my head and I am sure the same goes for my editors and the other reporters I worked with.
But unlike their counterparts in Europe and much of the English-speaking world, Britain’s tabloid newspapers became mired in a bidding war for sensationalism in the 1980s and 1990s and the Murdoch press, more than any other group, should take the blame for having helped foster the expectation on the part of the public that money can be made from the sale of information.
Despite all that was said both during and after the Leveson Inquiry, the Sun boldly proclaims to this day that it still has the biggest cheque book and is ready to pay the highest price in the market place for selling information.
Every day the Sun’s page two advertisement leaves little room for doubt:
“We pay for your stories. We are always after good stories and we pay big money for them every day. Celebrity, a human interest story, scandal or anything else that you think the good people of Britain would want to read about. Just get involved, call our newsdesk and don’t worry about cost, we’ll call you straight back.”
Paying for exclusives stories is deeply engrained in the culture of the Murdoch press and the Leveson Inquiry heard evidence of the “cash payment process” which editors could sanction and which reporters could take advantage of when reimbursing sources of information.
But journalists are divided on the ethics of paying for stories. I can only speak for the four generations of journalists in my family: we never paid for our stories!
It is often said by her supporters that the most important lesson of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was that she taught the country to understand that there is a price for everything – and in Murdoch’s case he encouraged far too many journalists to think the same went for private and personal data.
Nicholas Jones is among the contributors to Ethical Spaces: What Leveson Missed, a conference being held by the Institution of Communication Ethics at the Frontline Club (25.10.2013). His paper is entitled: “A Blind spot for the ‘fact finder’ Lord Justice Leveson. A missed opportunity: a failure to probe the origins of press dependency on what the Leveson Inquiry acknowledged had become ‘a widespread trade in private and confidential information’.”
Illustrations: The Times (16.7.2011); Sun (8.10.2013)
Nicholas Jones 21.10.2013