Last month, a London court sentenced Andy Coulson, the former editor of News of the World, to 18 months in prison for conspiring to hack phones of celebrities, the British royal family and politicians in a scandal dubbed as ‘Hackgate’.
The 46-year-old Coulson, who is also a former aide to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, should take the major share of the blame for the interception of voicemail messages at the now-defunct tabloid, the court said. Two other journalists were jailed for six months while another two accused were given suspended sentences.
The sentencing comes three years after Murdoch’s News Corp and the tabloid found themselves at the center of a global scandal triggered by revelations that journalists listened to messages on the phone of a murdered schoolgirl. While Coulson was the only person convicted at an eight-month trial, the other men pleaded guilty before the trial started.
The scandal sent shockwaves through Britain’s political elite, given the responsible and credible nature of the British Press is already reeling under a couple of controversies in the recent past. The outrage over the scandal has made press regulation a hot-button issue in UK. It stirred a debate about press freedom and ethical means practiced by journalists to obtain personal details of individuals. At the core of the issue was press freedom and journalism. In the aftermath, it was felt that there had been a shift away from the traditional ethics of journalism, raising questions about privacy, freedom of speech, and confidentiality.
“The hacking scandal has been about something more than some allegations of past crimes by individuals. It has been turned into a struggle for the soul of UK journalism and the future of press freedom,” said Mick Hume, Spiked’s Editor-at-large. He also criticized the attempt to frame tabloid journalism. “It is a sign of how far press freedom has fallen out of fashion that some have expressed their anger, not at the attempt to frame all tabloid journalism, but at the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks,” Mick fumes. However, for UK’s Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, the phone-tapping was down to some ‘bad apples’ in the industry.
It’s ironical that while senior journalists in UK demonstrate in support of reporters convicted in Egypt, declaring that ‘journalism is not a crime’, one of their former colleagues got imprisoned for illegal activities.
So the question is, why is it that the media given the responsibility and unbridled freedom it enjoys cannot abuse the power bestowed upon it and go scotfree.
It is pertinent to note the words of Judge John Saunders here. “There is a certain irony in seeing men who pride themselves on being distinguished investigative journalists, who have shed light in dark corners and forced others to reveal the truth, being unprepared to do the same for their own profession,” Saunders said, while sentencing the Now journalist.
The issue also highlights the failure of self-regulation in UK media. As in India, self-regulation has been the mantra of the British press, with the Press Complaints Commission acting as the forum to address grievances. But the scandal shows its utter failure. Experts believe that in the post-phone tapping scandal era, a new regulatory framework is on the anvil.
The phone tapping scandal, coupled with the attempt to regulate the media, hogged limelight in the Indian media in the recent past too. India is fortunate to have an impressive diverse and multilingual media. It has freedom to print or air opinions and stories that are critical of the government of the day. The growth of the media in recent years, however, has raised questions about journalistic standards and prompted a debate about whether the industry should be regulated.
Though India has not witnessed scandals like Hackgate, we have seen enough instances of journalists misusing their authority to obtain details of powerful people, sometimes even invading their privacy. All in the name of freedom of press.
The publication of the Nira Radia tape is a case in point. Though government agencies can tape phone conversation of citizens under Indian law, leaking and publishing such conversations is not an ethical practice. That is why a petition was filed in the Supreme Court accusing the media of maligning a reputation. Interestingly, the government was not challenged for intercept and recording private conversations. Some may argue that the issue also affects public interest. But where does one draw the line between what is it to trespass privacy and the right of the public to know what impacts its interests?
“The Indian situation cries out for an independent, comprehensive, hard look into the culture, practices, and ethics of the news media and questions of what kind of regulatory and governance mechanisms need to be put in place,” N Ram, former Editor of The Hindu has written.
Last year, a private member moved a media regulation bill in Parliament, sparking a heated debate. Press Council of India Chairman, Justice Markandey Katju, who was often critical of the media said, “If red lines can be drawn for the legal and medical professions, why should it be any different for profit-making newspapers and TV channels?”
Though many prominent journalists agree that the industry’s standards are falling, they particularly oppose setting up of an ‘outside regulatory body’ which calls for a greater sense of accountability on the part of the media.
The Indian system should learn from the Hackgate experience and evolve an effective mechanism to meet the challenge. One will only hope that greater sense will prevail among our friends in media to avoid the repeat of Hackgate.