By Natasha Aftandilians
July has not been a good month for Rupert Murdoch; earlier this month, allegations of phone hacking and bribery by British tabloid News of the World (published by News International, a subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corporation) editors and reporters surfaced, forcing the magnate to shut down production at the tabloid. The scandal stretches back to 2005 when the first reports were made by celebrities and royals that they suspected their voicemails had been tampered with. By 2009, British police at Scotland Yard had already gathered evidence that pointed to a phone hacking scheme that spread far and wide through the News International empire, with potential hacking victims numbering in the thousands and including the relatives of deceased British soldiers and victims of the July 7th terrorist bombings in London.
There was evidence of cover-ups and legal settlements worth thousands of dollars that were intended to protect the journalists responsible for the phone tampering. When it was revealed in the last weeks that reporters had hacked into the voice mailbox of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and deleted voicemails, giving hope to her family that she was still alive, the scandal reached its boiling point inciting not only public outrage, but calls for an investigation by members of Parliament into the widespread allegations of illegal activity, evidence tampering and interfering with police business.
The ongoing, far-reaching scandal raises questions about the state of journalistic ethics in the modern media. In a world where news and information travel at terrifyingly fast speeds from newsrooms to our televisions and computers, journalists are forced to keep up with the short attention span of the rest of the world and constantly provide the news that will capture people’s attention. The public’s voracious desire for the juiciest, most scandalous bits of news are what force tabloids like News of the World to resort to illegal activities to try and obtain private information about celebrities and public figures that will give their stories the extra edge over competing publications.
Is this violation of both laws and ethics ever justified? In the case of the News of the World, I think not. At no point did the information from these phone hackings ever go towards educating or informing the public for the greater good; they were simply used to hack into the private lives of people like Sienna Miller and Princes William and Harry, to try and find some “dirt” to print that would sell papers.
It is the duty of journalists to report the truth, first and foremost. But that doesn’t mean breaking all legal and ethical codes just to get some juicy details that will sell more newspapers. The hacking seems especially heinous and pointless in the case of Milly Dowler, the missing girl who was later found murdered; when NOTW reporters hacked into her voicemail and deleted messages from her mailbox, they gave her family false hope that she was still alive and using her phone. These reporters interfered with the work of the police as they tried to find this missing girl by tampering with evidence, all in some desperate attempt to find information that could sell more tabloids. It seems that any code of professional ethics had been ignored by NOTW reporters and editors.
Standards of journalistic integrity have slowly since been falling apart ever since the Internet became our number one source of news; it has increased the need for more titillating, attention-grabbing reporting that focuses on the outrageous rather than the important truth. Professional journalists have a duty to the public to seek out the truth in ethically sound and legal ways. Of course, reporters have always found ways of getting information that push the boundaries of what is completely fair, but going so far as to blatantly hack into the private voicemail of innocent civilians is just plain wrong.
The only reassurance now is that hopefully Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, and all other responsible parties of News International who were in any way involved in this scandal are properly punished. Shutting down the News of the World is only the first step in bringing down a news empire that has been relying on surreptitious, unethical methods of gathering “all the news that’s fit to print.”
Natasha Aftandilians is a fourth-year political science and international studies major. She can be reached at email@example.com.