How can the end of a more than a hundred years old newspaper be a victory for journalism? Yes we have just witnessed the demise of the 168 old Sunday paper and this news had rocked the media world in the west. The cause of the unexpected end of the tabloid is due to careless attitude of the media house which literarily threw journalistic ethics out of the window. The question is how can unethical journalistic practices of the staff of ‘News of the World’ become a victory for journalism?
I don’t remember reading the News of the World while I was in England, but it took me by surprise when I heard it on BBC that the news paper will stop publication from the very next issue. Even if I have never ever read the tabloid, the news of its end is a surprise to say the least. Once the rival paper in Britain brought to light the underhand operation of the reporters of this tabloid by paying the police for favours, it was certain that heads would roll. In spite of the seriousness of the situation in which the newspaper was in, I never thought that the 168 year old paper would finally go down. The very fact that the management of the tabloid decided to close the paper is what I consider to be a bold decision which shows moral responsibility and is keeping in line with true journalistic ethics, albeit quite late in the day.
The management of the paper could have held on for dear life to the newspaper by simply letting off the journalists who were responsible for the telephone hacking; the management could have saved its skin by striking off its roll the top notch employees of the newspaper, but instead decided to close down the paper. Everybody in the UK including the staff of the News of the World expected Rupert Murdoch’s blue-eyed girl Rebekah Brooks to put in her paper, but instead it is was the paper which had to go first. Obviously the point that the management of the newspaper made by closing the down the paper is that they committed a Himalayan blunder and owe moral responsibility for what had happened. By not doing anything when its reporter used underhand methods to gather news, the paper had crossed the Lakshman-Rekha of journalistic ethics and had to face the consequences. There is no other way out for the management of the newspaper but to close it down.
I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if one of the newspapers in the State met with a similar situation. Do you think the management of the newspaper would decide to close down and bid goodbye to the paper’s 7.5 million readers or will they try to find out ways and means to stay afloat? I think most of the papers would choose the easy way out; fire the errant reporter or even the editor and go on with life as usual. Blaming our subordinates and passing the buck to others always seems to be a sane and more viable alternative. On second thoughts, however, is there any likelihood that any newspaper in the state would face a similar situation? The answer is no. The press reporters in the State are either playing it safe or are plain lazy. It seems like all media persons in the state are armchair journalists. If that is not the case, then why do we seldom read any stories that expose the wrong-doings of people in high places? It looks like the term investigative journalism in still an alien word to our journalists.
Take any newspaper published from Shillong at any point of time and one will find that the news we read every day comprises only of press releases distributed or leaked by the different government departments and the many Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) or press statements again made by various departments, numerous NGOs and sometimes even individuals and add to that we also have reports of functions, incidents and accidents and that’s about it, period. Very rarely will readers stumble upon a story with in-depth reporting while rural reporting seems to be an unknown word in the Meghalaya journalists’ vocabulary; be it in the print or the electronic media. Oh yes, and there are but loads and loads of government and private advertisement. If there is any story which is worth calling investigative journalism story, it must have been investigated and unearthed by the NGOs and the press was only involved later. The case of the BDO of Mawryngkneng Block is a case in point. We are yet to read or see a story in any media which comes close to what we can call investigative reporting.
In spite of the commotion that the News of the World crisis created against investigative journalism, the truth remains that many scandals, corruption and wrong doings of politicians, celebrities and other people in high places particularly in the UK would not have been exposed if it was not for investigative journalism. The most recent case is the one which exposed the involvement of the cricketers of our neighboring country in match fixing. The scandal would not been exposed if it is not for investigative journalists who tracked the illegal activities of the cricketers. I am not trying to condone the illegal acts that the reporters of the News of the World have perpetrated in collaboration with the police. A crime is a crime, and wrong means used cannot justify the ends. These are early days and it remains to be seen what will be the outcome of the phone-hacking or the News of the World crisis. Will it be the end of the investigative journalism or will investigative journalism still remain a major journalistic tool to expose scandals and wrong doing of public figures? The fact remains that the line which divides cases of public interest and press freedom on the one hand and individual right to privacy and individual freedom on the other; is still as blurred as it has ever been with a vast grey areas in between.
Also compare the News of the World crisis to what happened in the political landscape of India, when the many major scams were reported. Everyone who was alleged to be involved in corruption, refused to resign and held on to their chairs until they were forced to do so, while others remained adamant till they were arrested. How many politicians choose to step-down from their position when there are allegations of corruption or wrong doing against them? In the case of the News of the World, when all the evidence against the paper were bared open for everyone to see, the management of the Sunday paper did not take time but decided to stop publication without waiting for the outcome of the police investigation or the report of any inquiry commission. No matter how important the history of the paper is or how many million lives the paper has touched, if it had committed a blunder, it must go. There is no excuse whatsoever for unethical journalistic acts of any kind and the paper must pay the prize.
The News of the World was a good read even on its very last edition, in fact reading the reports of its final edition reproduced by many newspapers and news agency is entertaining. Rupert Murdoch’s critics are of the opinion that the News of the World was closed to save his News Corporation take over bid of Britain’s 12 million dollar satellite company, British Sky Broadcasting or BSkyB. But Murdoch has proved his critics wrong and withdrawn from the bid. Other Murdoch critics suspect that the News of the World was systematically killed to make way for the media mogul’s News Corporation’s new venture. Even if this is true, the fact of the matter is that the News of the World is no more and the cause of its demise is unethical journalistic practice by its staff and that is the ultimate victory of ethical journalism and triumph of journalism with moral principles.
(The writer is a research scholar and an elder of the Unitarian Church)