The furore over phone hacking in UK has produced much righteous indignation, much of it from journalists. Watching some of them pontificate with faux anger reminded me of Captain Renault as he closed down Rick’s bar in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” The truth, as one wag put it, is that it’s 95% of journalists who give the profession a bad name. Borrowing photographs from the mantelpieces of the deceased, misrepresenting, entrapment (including recently of a politician by reporters posing as constituents) are just of some the ruses employed by many journalists on publications and media outlets across the board. To blame one tabloid at the expense of the profession as a whole is to miss the point.
Some say that this is a watershed moment for the profession; that it is to journalists what the expenses scandal was to MPs. In truth, the general public were no more shocked to hear of the nefarious practices of some journalists than they were to find that some MPs were playing the system to feather their own nests. Such is the poor reputation of these two “professions”. The question now is what to do about it. For some it is about regulation. Clearly self-regulation (to which some media outlets have opted out anyway) is struggling with the reality of not wanting to point fingers for fear of having them pointed back. In any case, quis custodiet ipsos custodes, as they used to say in the forum. But surely a free press is the price that a healthy and robust democracy has to pay for being healthy and robust? After all, do we really want to be in a society where the establishment connives in covering up, for instance, the predatory behaviour of a senior politician?
Those who have worked in the pressure-cooker environment of a tabloid newspaper speak of the sole focus as that of getting the exclusive story. Nothing else seems to matter. But only in highly regimented command and control environments, such as the military, do rules and regulations dictate behaviour. Journalism is under real pressure from many angles. There are no longer any significant barriers to entry. Training budgets are being slashed, and the business model is having to re-invent itself in the face of disruptive technology and with competition now coming in all shapes and sizes. All this means that regulation is never likely to be the answer and would be unlikely to change behaviours.
So what is going to happen? The sheer complexity of the situation seems overwhelming. But the truth is that you tend to get the media that you deserve. To blame them for being salacious is to ignore our own prurient attitudes. It may sound naïve, but the solution lies within ourselves. It is we who need to reset our values. It is we who need to be reminded of what is and what isn’t really important. This may sound horribly naïve, but sustainable change really does come from within. If we are not happy with how society and its institutions have turned out then we have to change them through our own behaviour. Small actions do lead to big changes. And that change starts at home. As Ghandi said: “Be the change you want to see.”