Political Promise

Will the News of the World damage democracy?

In Vicky Wong on September 14, 2010 at 7:50 am

From sports stars to politicians, Vicky Wong asks is the News of the World’s uncovering of scandals really in the public interest?

​The News of the World have gained notoriety for unearthing some of the biggest scandals known to British media; from the Pakistani match-fixing to the Sarah Ferguson saga, and most recently the recent infamous phone hacking claims made by the New York Times.

We are all judged by what kind of newspapers we read. However much we may turn our noses up at the sensationalist journalism in “that rag”, one cannot help but feel some kind of admiration for the News of the World for their boldness. However, this is not to say that their phone hacking activities should be condoned.

It’s not so much that it is an infringement of the right to privacy, against the virtue that democracy needs a media that is free and independent of the state. But more that it is a question of power. Home Secretary Theresa May has left it up to the Metropolitan Police, and David Cameron has given Andy Coulson his full support. But Labour MP Tom Watson argued that “the integrity of our democracy is under scrutiny around the world and the home secretary must not make it a laughing stock”.

But will it? Democracy has always been judged by how free their media is, the age of globalization, and advances in technology have made phone hacking a lot easier. A government attempting to stifle a newspaper in theory would be an infringement to what democracy is supposed to be in theory, but this altogether raises alarm bells as to how we are supposed to view public figures.

The British media is notoriously anti-politician; Melanie Phillips, a Daily Mail columnist, appeared on Question Time, when the panel were asked about the revelations concerning John Terry’s private life. The view she gave was that he is a public figure and was then captain of the England team, and his debaucherous behaviour is not the example that people would like to be set to the younger generation. Although I (grudgingly) agree with Phillips, the impression she gave was that public figures should not have the right to privacy.

Tom Watson MP may be mistaken when he says that the British democracy may become a laughing stock, it is not so much that British democracy will be in trouble, but its public figures will be undermined, and it is taking the government’s integrity with it by having the News of the World’s ex-editor at the heart of 10 Downing Street.

That Andy Coulson has denied any knowledge of rooted phone hacking surely would imply that he was unable to control his own journalists whilst he was their editor? But what is incredible however is the New York Times, the newspaper who unearthed the scandal in the first place, are unwilling to waiver their journalistic privilege, further giving credence that the New York Times (unlike the red-tops) are scared of scandal.

Journalists have an obligation to the public to produce and investigate stories that are of the national interest. An article in the Economist this week noted that the press are also the barometers of public opinion; this is something that the whistle-blowing red-top tabloids are brilliant at doing. We very often underestimate how influential the institution of tabloid press is, and very often, we refuse to give into its material because of the notorious reputation it harnesses. Its scandalous journalism puts politicians under the radar, and keeps them in check to avoid doing anything remotely untoward of a public figure.

However, what the Economist has not acknowledged is that the tabloid press is more than just a barometer of public opinion, but a shaper of it. Think of this; the tabloid world, a world that is unaccountable to the public, a realm full of the real movers and shakers of society’s opinions, and an institution that the worlds of authority and celebrity fear. That is a lot of power for a newspaper to wield, and exactly how much power tabloids possess is epitomised perfectly in Tom Watson’s speech:

“The truth is that we all of us in this house…are scared of the Rebecca Brooks of this world… think of this; it’s almost laughable, here we sit in parliament, the central institution of our sacred democracy… the most powerful people in the land, and we are scared of the power she wields without a jot of responsibility or accountability. They the barrens of the media and their red topped assassins are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle; they have no predators, they are untouchable, they laugh at law, they sneer at parliament, they have the power to hurt us and they do so with gusto and precision, with joy and criminality. Prime Ministers quell before them and that is how they like it, that indeed is become and they insist upon it, and we are powerless in the face of them, and we are afraid.”

That Watson has stated that politicians, are scared of the media, is only testimony to how powerful they are, and we seem to have forgotten that.

Journalists are one of the fundamental pillars that define a democracy; a free media, with the right to report what it wants, and the right to publish within the publish interest. However, it wields a lot of responsibility.

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  1. […] Wong wrote Will the News of the World Damage Democracy? in November 2010. This week has proved how right she was. Here is her take on the dramas of the […]

  2. bravo,u got her.
    rebekah b.(obviously has a massive absent father complex) she is a gangsters moll.shed made a great drug dealer.cold and charming.
    How embarassing for the once classy brits to have ex papparazi types as political advisors.
    Are the infavour editors the gate keepers of the top or naughty pollies etc.,.keep yr enemies close.
    i detest women like this shes like germaine greer…….

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