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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 17 April, 2014

Column: We can’t let phone hacking stifle the press

The media plays a crucial role in society, and tabloids will always be a part of that, writes crime reporter Abigail Rieley.

Abigail Rieley

I’M SURE I’M not the only journalist glued to the whole cataclysmic mess that is the UK phone hacking scandal.  It’s a proper toe-curling political and social scandal on the scale of Watergate and at its heart is the press itself… and whatever else we might or might not get up to, we do love reading about ourselves.

The dust is very far from settling on that that story and it’ll be a while before everyone knows just how far the toxic fallout has settled but even at this stage one thing is certain.  This is a story that will be talked about and written about not just for the coming months but for years to come.  It’ll be picked over and analysed and agonised over while many breasts are beaten in hollow mea culpas and many other shoulders shrugged.

So I’m getting in relatively early.  I’m not getting into the rights and the wrongs of phone hacking and whatever else is lying in wait to come out next. There’ll be plenty written in other places than here.  This is simply a personal view.

Journalistic ethics are in the spotlight at the moment and the general consensus is finding them absent at best, if not festeringly rotten.  In a survey commissioned by the Irish Medical Council earlier this year only 37 per cent of Irish people trusted journalists to tell the truth. We came in above politicians, but given this was before the last general election that really isn’t much of an achievement.

But it’s not a recent slide.  I know the guarded look that comes across peoples faces when I tell them what I do and I know the reaction of some of my actor parents’ friends when they learned my chosen profession. It’s not just that people are worried at ending up in the story, it’s that they expect me to twist their words if they end up there. What’s really crazy is that a lot of them relax when they find out I write fiction as well – even though the odds are far greater of them ending up there, unless they kill someone.

I’m not wringing my hands and whining that no-one likes me because I’m a hack. I know that by writing true crime I’m skating on the edge of what’s considered respectable to write about.  Once again I would probably get less flak if I wrote crime fiction – because then I’d only be dreaming up interesting ways to kill people, instead of writing about peoples’ actual attempts. The fact that I cover the trial rather than doing the death knocks and chasing grieving families doesn’t count for much when I’ve written not one but two books picking over every bloody detail of stories that might have faded away as the public looked to the next big thing… or so some may think.

The appetite for death

But that doesn’t make me unethical.  It just means I’m doing my job.  On the back page of it’s final edition the News of the World quoted George Orwell.  The essay they quoted is called The Decline of the English Murder and in it Orwell examines the public fascination with a good murder.  He talks, tongue in cheek, of the “golden age” when murders harked back to a sense of melodrama that chimed with the public consciousness.

Modern murder happens too easily, he argued, to stick in the consciousness of a nation numbed by war.  Orwell’s modern murder happened in the mid-1940s… but his point still stands.  There’s still an appetite for death – one that is part of human nature – but as life  has been cheapened with an increase in thoughtless deaths so that appetite is increasingly seen as a guilty thing, one of our baser instincts that has no place in a civilised society.

The ongoing revelations of the hacking of murder victims phones and the rest feed into a perception that’s been there for a long time.  The dodgy journalist is a stock character anywhere from Harry Potter to Coronation Street.  I suppose it goes hand in hand with the fact that part of a journalist’s job is asking questions that people don’t want asked, and on occasion snooping where some would rather you didn’t go.  But if journalists didn’t have this instinct how many injustices would have gone unremarked? How many scandals would have gone uncovered?

It all goes back to ethics. Journalistic ethics are something that perhaps have been increasingly overlooked over the past couple of decades.  When there’s an increasing pressure to sell newspapers in a market that’s changing so quickly and shrinking even faster, then the urge to satisfy public curiosity with gory details and juicy revelations will grow – and can in some cases leave taste and ethics languishing in its wake.

When I studied journalism in the mid 1990s, in a four-year course that covered everything from languages to philosophy to film theory, there was no dedicated strand of the course that covered ethics.  We were made aware of the NUJ Code of Conduct but a dedicated class, where ethical issues could be debated and fully understood, was lacking.  How can you trust that young journalists will have a sufficiently strong moral compass to negotiate frequently complex ethical issues if you don’t give them the training to recognise these issues when they arise?

Bloody hoaxes

The exclusive has become the be all and end all, and ‘human interest’ has become a driving force.  Everyone who covers murder trials knows that even that formulaic process has its money shots. The tears of the victim’s mother, the stony face of the accused when he’s sentenced.  We write according to narrative rules that are embedded in instinct.  In order to sell a trial you have to draw out the emotion and spoon feed it to a public numbed by constant repetition.  We fit the characters in a trial into the same roles that they have occupied since the popular press came into existence, the dramatis personae of a melodrama with a fixed outcome and set pieces.  It really is nothing new… even Jack the Ripper himself, it’s been suggested, had help from the press – the infamous letters with their bloody signature that gave a monster such a memorable name may even have been hoaxes written by newspapermen to drum up more readers.

I write about murder trials because that structure fascinates me.  I’m interested in what drives someone to kill, on how easy it can be to take that decision to break one of the deepest taboos and end a human life.  It’s an interest that hasn’t just been limited to the so-called gutter press.  Charles Dickens covered many a murder and Truman Capote’s greatest work was not the tale of Holly Golightly but the examination of the brutal murder of a family that rocked a small town.  But I know that in the eyes of some people out there I might as as well be rooting through people’s bins and papping celebrities.

I’ve always cared about ethics.  It’s not enough to observe the law, there is a moral responsibility there as well.  It’s important to be fair, not just because I’m afraid of influencing a jury, but because it matters.  The press have always been known as the Fourth Estate and with that comes a duty.  We are allowed in the courts to make sure that justice does not take place behind closed doors.  It’s the press who keep an eye on the politicians to ensure that they have the public’s best  interests at heart.  That’s the way it should be and that’s still often the way it is.  In the face of all these recent revelations those sentences might sound trite and insincere but if the fall-out of the hacking scandal results in a hamstrung press that cannot shine a light on bad men and corruption society as a whole will be all the poorer for it.

There will always be a grey area here, a blurred line between public interest and what the public is interested in but without strong ethics  journalism, and investigative journalism in particular, will suffer.  The subject will be done to death in the weeks and months to come but somehow that trust will have to be rebuilt.  As long as the press is attacking itself and there’s ammunition for it to do so, other stories are being ignored.  Even by making that distinction between the ‘gutter’ and the ‘quality’ press, journalism isn’t being served.  There are plenty of ethical journalists out there but it’s too easy to tar us all with the same brush.  This is a massive subject and far too big for a single post.  By the time the dust has finally settled in this almighty mess I just hope that journalism doesn’t take too big a hit.

I don’t know how this is going to be fixed but I hope someone out there does.  I became a journalist because I wanted to make a difference, not because I wanted to rake muck.  There should still be a place for making a difference when the last shots have been fired.

Abigail Rieley is an author and journalist who has written two books about recent murder trials, Devil In The Red Dress and Death On The Hill and also covers trials for the Sunday Independent. She blogs at abigailrieley.com. See facebook.com/abigailrieleywriter.

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