Phone Hacking Journalism Transparency And Why The Readers Are Gaining Power Over Brands

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It is a watershed moment for UK journalism – perhaps the lowest point for the trade’s public perception in a generation.

The Guardian’s revelation the News of the World’s “rogue operator” hacking consultant Glenn Mulcaire allegedly helped to intercept then delete the voicemail messages of missing schoolgirl Amanda (Milly) Dowler, leading to a police review of other child abduction cases, is the kind of story that races from the media pages to the front page and the top of every broadcast bulletin in the land.

The only thing surprising about these allegations is that anyone in tabloid journalism is surprised. A former senior tabloid reporter told me in 2007 that phone-tapping was rife:

“Basically most of the tabloids are under pressure like never before to get big scoops which will sell. Because of this, they have for years been tapping people’s phones, listening in on private messages and ripping people’s phone numbers off.”

This wasn’t backroom dealing, this was in full view of the newsroom and happened every week (I’m not naming the journalist, who is still in the industry). And it’s not, by any means, limited to News International.

Social media has changed the game

But compared with the press panic over Clive Goodman’s jailing in 2006 for intercepting phone messages, this panic is different: the readers are playing a bigger role in the fate of media brands than ever before – what the public has to say is an important element in this very public saga.

NOTW suffered very little commercially in 2006/7, but in this Twitter age Ford, npower, Halifax, T-Mobile and Orange are just some of the advertisers considering pulling their adverts from News of the World in large part due to the indignation from readers and campaigners who are loudly making their voices heard on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and specially-built websites and petitions.

Just look at this article on how campaigners so efficiently targeted NOTW and got the result they were after: advertiser pull-outs.

As analyst Claire Enders told the BBC Today programme today (via @Peston), Ford’s annual ad spend in NOTW could be worth as much as £4 million. This really matters.

And this, media industry professional, is my warning to you: you are not safe from the growing power of your audience. When the aggregate lobbying power of campaigners is enough to convince a world-leading car brand to withdraw millions of pounds of advertising from the UK’s best-selling newspaper, every media owner in the country should be asking if they are doing anything that could trigger a similar response.

How to avoid negativity through transparency

But you can minimise this risk in a number of ways:

1. Openess

By being as open as possible about the workings of your organisation. For journalists that means stating openly your associations and affiliations, any personal relationships or professional (current or former) that could be seen to influence a story. Online ethics statements are a very good way of doing that, as AllThingsD reporters do (ironically ATD is a News Corp-owned site).

2. Conversation

The tabloid press don’t talk back, they don’t respond. For The Sun, News of the World or news International in general to make a public statement is a rare event. “We let our journalism speak for itself” is an phrase often given to media reporters by NI’s corporate comms department. But that’s not enough any more: NOTW is a part of the conversation whether it likes it or not – publishing once a week doesn’t cut it.

I sometimes wonder whether Twitter’s most active and visible users are left-wing media people whose natural stance is anti red-top and anti-Murdoch. But thousands of people who have signed anti-NOTW petitions today are doing so in part because NI is a closed, insular organisation, perceived to be shadowy with convenient links to powerful politicians.

3. Admit chasing scoops is dangerous

The exclusive is king. Editors on Sunday red-tops will often tell reporters: “We need an exclusive on every page”. Phone-hacking was a logical conclusion of the must-win attitude in newsrooms. It is not uncommon for reporters – often hired on month-to-month contracts – to be by summarily fired for not bringing in enough exclusives. Jobs are on the line. A macho culture reigned.

Just look at Mulcaire’s statement to the Guardian yesterday: “Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results. I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically. But, at the time, I didn’t understand that I had broken the law at all.”

Rebekah Wade argues she had no knowledge of phone hacking and maybe she’s right. But it was her reporters finding the exclusives she’d demanded day after day, beating the competition at all costs. It now seems those costs may run to several million pounds in lost advertising and a disastrous loss in public confidence.

(Where it’s not stated, links are to Guardian.co.uk which has consistently led the way on this story, thanks to the tenacity of Nick Davies and others.)

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