So where do I start with this one? You all know the story that broke on July 5th 2011 about News International's UK tabloid newspaper the News Of The World (Henceforth NoTW) having "hacked" the phone of the missing Milly Dowler in 2002. Now I won't condone interfering with a police investigation and I agree that a subcontractor of the paper deleting voicemails was seriously out of line and that those individuals responsible need to be brought to account for it. But the reaction to it worried me and I believe the majority of the public got it wrong. I seemed to be one of the only people who wasn't supporting a boycott. But why? (Note,. other than in the references section, most links are to twitter posts I made at the time - this isn't just a perspective with the benefit of hindsight)
For one thing, since I haven't heard otherwise, I can only assume that the 'voicemail hacking' was done by guessing a voicemail password. As an analogy, if my bank doesn't use encryption to their website, it's the bank's fault (if I ignore an invalid certificate though, it's my fault). If I don't leave my front door open when I go out then I shouldn't be surprised if I suffer a theft. If I use a stupid password on my phone, then I shouldn't be surprised if people access it. There have been enough cases of 'hacked' passwords/twitter accounts etc. that there's no excuse for it. Either disable voicemail, protect it properly, or don't complain about it. We're in a technological age, some basic security awareness is essential.
As I said, I am disgusted at journalists deleting potential evidence in voicemails, however a few people expressed disgust that it led the family to believe that Milly was still alive. I don't subscribe to that view since why would you assume that if she was missing then a kidnapper wasn't the one accessing it? Making an assumption about the safety of the missing person based on whether new voicemails can be left is a little silly.
In the 24 hours after the story broke there was a big campaign, particularly on twitter with the use of the #saynotoNOTW hashtag and asking people to support a boycott this week's News Of The World. That then became a campaign to push advertisers to withdraw advertising from the paper this weekend. Some did, others like Tesco refused (but later agreed to give profits from selling it to charity) This is where I really started to have a problem with it, and here's why:
- I think it's safe to assume that the Milly voicemail deletions did occur, but this event was nine years ago and most of the people who were working for the paper at the time have moved on. I think I heard one person report that there were only about three people left from the original team. Penalising current employees over an event which was not caused by the current journalist team is unfair.
- Is there any suggestion that another tabloid would not have done the same if they'd been using the same agent to do the 'hack'? Bear in mind that a 2006 report suggested that illegal trading in personal information was rife across the industry and NoTW were not the top culprit.
- Who are they targetting? I wonder how many of the people looking to boycott the paper were the sort of person who would have bought it anyway? NoTW readers are interested in sensationalism - that's the target audience so I wonder how many of the regular readers that would have bought into the boycott anyway.
All of these point to one thing - that the campaigns were targetting the wrong issue. The problem is not just the staff of NoTW, it's a need to solve industry-wide problems and making sure that journalists do not expect or allow routinely being in receipt of illegally obtained information. The industry regulation is broken, and deflecting from that issue by targetting NoTW as a scapegoat is not something that will solve the problem.
So what happened? The campaign, superficially, was quite successful as many retailers pulled their advertising and then on Friday the news broke that the NoTW was to be shut down and that the 'boycott' target issue on July 10th, 2011 - Issue 8674 in a 168 year run, was to be the last one. Job done, people power has succeeded in preventing this from happening again.
I quickly wrote an aggrieved rant on Google Plus because I believe there are several problems with what has been achieved:
- It results in people who had NO INVOLVEMENT in the scandal that triggered the campaign losing their jobs.
- It doesn't fix the regulatory issues that allows journalists to consider questionable means of getting information to be acceptable. Sort the PCC (Press Complaints Commision) out.
- Those in charge of the paper at the time, such as Rebekah Brooks, were allowed to have no punishment (so far).
- Most importantly, it's likely that News International wanted to kill off News Of The World anyway
The last point is critical. Before this story broke there were reports that News International had changed their management structure in part with the intention of moving to 7-day newspapers i.e. stopping the 'Sunday only' ones - such as the News Of The World. Now would I go as far as to say that News International started the scandal? Probably not, but I think that once it came out they would have been in no hurry to object to it and the wheels were quite probably already in motion to kill off the paper, this way they managed to do it with the blessing of the public, while going out with a teary fanfare of a collectable 'farewell' edition. They're giving proceeds to charity but ultimately the targetted campaign against the current paper has given News International what they wanted anyway. Overall effect zero because in itself the campaign has not solved the problems.
The other advantage to NewsCorp is that since they have ambitions to take over BskyB in the UK then acting like "the good guy" and bowing to "public pressure" to close NoTW (which they wanted to do anyway) deflects control from the issues that haven't been addressed as people rejoice in their success. I hope they don't get control of BskyB but if they do, then losing NoTW in exchange for BskyB probably works out well for them.
So where now? The masses have campaigned for this and filled up my timelines with anto-NoTW sentiment. What's now needed is for something to be done about the issues. The campaign focussed on punishing the paper, not those involved. The real campaign (assuming the public isn't already bored of this story now) is to fix the media industry and possibly target the outrage at people who are paying the police for information.
I'm fed up of it, it would appear (judging by the reactions I had from the posts linked through this article) that hardly anyone agrees with me but I still maintain that the majority feelings and campaign directions were misplaced, and that Rupert Murdoch's empire has outsmarted most of you. I'm taking the moral high ground on this for trying to put across that view. Murdoch's got what he wanted - his trusted people safe (for now, but likely to be questioned by police) and the a publication shut down that he didn't want to continue. But maybe that will change as things unfold over the next few weeks and months as more facts come out.
That's all folks.
- Historical NoTW circulation figures
- Guardian article on the Milly Dowler phone hacking
- Phone hacking timeline
- one of many references calling for a boycott
- Video of Rebecca Brooks admitting to paying police for information
- 74% of cover price for final issue going to charity, rest to retailer/wholesaler/distributers
- Video interview with ex-NoTW editor Paul McMullen not looking clever and Steve Coogan et al
- Tesco agree to give proceeds from final NoTW sales to charity
- BBC article from 2006 about which papers deal in illegal information
- Expectation of a doubling in sales of the final issue
- NewsCorp's press release talking about a move to 'seven day working'
- Rebekah Brooks likely to be questioned
- Ed Miliband to try and force House of Commons vote on the Newscorp/BskyB takeover
- Rivals gear up to steal NoTW's readers