THE SALT THAT LOST ITS SAVOUR
By CAMERON DUODU
Once upon a time, the News Of The World was one of the British newspapers that no-one interested in British affairs could ignore. Published each Sunday since 1843 , it had, by 1950, become the biggest-selling newspaper in the world, with a weekly sale of 8,441,000 – that is, it was bought by more people than existed in Ghana at the time! And, if the fact that each copy was read by more than one person is taken into consideration, then its readership became quite simply phenomenal: something like 25 million per week, at the very least. It fed its readers a diet of sex –especially rape — and other “human interest” stories. Its content made many people wonder: would the paper be read by so many, if its stories were less titillating? If titillation was what the publicv wanted, was it right to criticise the News of The World for giving it to them?
In 1969, this newspaper that was once tagged as “English as roast beef”, was bought by an Australian newspaper tycoon called Rupert Murdoch, who was also to buy The Times and The Sunday Times, two rather more prestigious London newspapers than the News of the World. He also bought The Sun newspaper, a broadsheet that he turned into a tabloid and which introduced the “Page 3 Girl” into British journalism: every morning, readers of The Sun are provided with a picture of a nubile beauty with bared breasts.
(Incidentally, Mr Murdoch came to the attention of knowledgeable Ghanaians when his second daughter, Elisabeth, married Elkin Pianim, son of the Ghanaian economist and politician, Mr Kwame Pianim. The marriage was later dissolved.)
Mr Murdoch became an even bigger player on the British media scene when he established Sky Broadcasting, a satellite-TV service that soon captured the rights to show most of Britain’s premier league football matches, as well as local and international cricket matches. Because Sky has a near-monopoly of popular sport, Murdoch’s companies in Britain, which operate under the umbrella of a parent company called “News International”, have been “printing money” for him. (That was how a former owner of commercial TV licences in Britain, Lord [Roy] Thompson of Fleet, once described the ease with which a TV licence owner could rake in revenue from his TV operations.)
Murdoch’s businesses were becoming big not only in the UK, but also endeavoured to conquer the biggest media market of all – that of the USA. He set up News Corporation, which not only owns Fox News (one of the most popular — and shallow-minded — TV stations on the planet) but also several newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. Murdoch became so powerful as a result of his ownership of all these media organisations that British politicians who wanted power, went to pay obeisance to him, especially, the former prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Blair spoke to Murdoch three times before taking the decision to send British troops to Iraq.
Murdoch’s power apparently seems to have transmitted itself by osmosis to some of the staff of his newspapers — especially the News of The World and The Sun, but also the Sunday Times (once, Britain’s leading newspaper and from which a little more sobriety might have been expected) and they appear to have begun to break the law in seeking information about individuals. The News of The World in particular, but also The Sun began to employ private investigators to hack into the mobile phones of persons about whom the papers were interested in writing stories.
Such hacking of telephones is illegal in the UK.
The personalities whose telephones were hacked included members of Britain’s royal family, in addition to celebrities such as film and television stars, football players and their wives and girlfriends, as well as – we now know – the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. His lawyer’s files and a Building Society account were “blagged” (the person seeking the information pretended to be acting for Brown, or was Brown himself!) The mind boggles at this: couldn’t Britain’s secret economic information have been filched from these forays into Mr Brown’s files?
Mr Brown also told the House of Commons that medical information relating to his son, was obtained and published by the Sun newspaper. He and his wife were greatly distressed by the publication, Mr Brown said. This, added to revelations that the News of the World hacked into the phone of a girl who had gone missing and deleted messages from it, (thus giving them false hope that she was still alive) turned a big section of British public opinion against the Murdoch organisation.
Initially, news of some of these breaches of the law had become public after a royal reporter of the News of The World, Clive Goodwin, and the private detective he used, Glenn Mulcaire, were jailed for hacking into the telephones of a member of staff of the royal family. But the British police, Scotland Yard, decided that although 11,000 pages of information had been seized from Glenn Mulcaire, there wasn’t much more to be done after the prosecution and jailing of Goodwin and Mulcaire. The 11,000 pages contained the telephone numbers of about 4,000 people, but Scotland Yard has, up to now, only been able to tell just over a hundred of these people that they had been on Mulcair’s list and might therefore have had their phones hacked. Scotland Yard has now set up a special unit to comb through the information seized from Mulcair, which had, hitherto, been stowed into “bin bags”.
However, some of the individuals whose eyes were opened by the Goodwin/Mulcaire trial, began to take private legal actions for breach of confidentiality, against the News Of The World. As soon as they sued, the paper settled the matter out of court. The condition for their accepting these payments was that their allegations would be sealed by the court and never revealed.
Meanwhile, The Guardian newspaper began to investigate the extremely serious lapses on the part of its rival newspapers owned by News International. The paper clearly established that the News of the World was probably emboldened to break the law because it had cultivated some policemen at Scotland Yard, to whom it paid large sums of money. At least one senior policeman was taken on as a columnist by News International’s “sober” paper, The Times, after he had resigned from the police force.
While these allegations were being bruited about, the parent company of the Murdoch group made an offer to buy more shares in BskyB, the company that ran Sky, and in which Murdoch only held a minority shareholding. Murdoch now wanted to own a majority of the shares of BSkyB. It was then that the fear in which politicians and others in the society held Murdoch suddenly evaporated. Murdoch should not be given any more power over the media than he already had. His bid appeared to them to amount to “arrogance”: how could a company that was under such a huge cloud believe that it should be allowed to have more power? Then things got really bad for Murdoch.
First, it was reported that “personal details about the Queen and her closest aides” were sold to the News of the World by corrupt royal protection officers. The information “included phone numbers and tips about the movements and activities of the Queen, Prince Philip and staff in a serious breach of national security”. The payments, and involvement of the royal and diplomatic protection squad, were uncovered by News International in 2007, and yet the organisation maintained again and again that it had not engaged in any general wrongdoing.
Murdoch withdrew his bid shortly before the House of Commons was due to debate a motion, supported by all sides of the House, asking Murdoch to withdraw the bid. And the Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, has announced that the police will thoroughly investigate all allegations made in relation to phone hacking and payments made to the police by the media. The general question of regulating the media is also to be looked into. A judge, equipped with powers of summoning individuals and ordering them to give evidence on oath, will look into the whole question of media wrongdoing.
Earlier, even as the modalities of the enquiries into hacking were under discussion, Murdoch stunned the country by announcing that he was closing down the News of the World. But if his closure of the paper was meant to close down the affair, he was wrong. It had exactly the opposite effect. More revelations began to pour out about its phone hacking.
Despite the potential risk to security the information about the issues uncovered by the organisation were not passed on to the police, until last month. Scotland Yard was only informed after other News International bosses discovered the existence of emails related to the issues, during a separate internal probe set up to uncover evidence of phone hacking.
The allegations against News International have stunned the British body politic. It is, rightly, the proud claim of the British media that they bring governments to account. But if they use illegal methods to do this, are they not behaving like the “salt” which Jesus said had “lost its savour”?
What shall be done with salt that has lost its flavour, Jesus asked rhetorically. In the case of the British media, tougher methods of regulating them are definitely on the way. But it is extremely important that while these regulatory measures improve the standards of behaviour of the media, they do not become a stumbling block to genuine investigative journalism. Yes, News International has brought a general distrust upon the heads of the British media. But it should not be forgotten that most of the wrongdoing by News Internationals titles were uncovered by the dogged, unrelenting work of another journalist — Nick Davies of the Guardian newspaper.