The fresh revelations of phone hacking at the News of the World will have horrified anyone with even the remotest shred of human decency. That private investigators employed by the News International-owned tabloid could hack the phone of a murdered teenager (giving her parents false hope that she might still be alive and potentially obstructing a criminal investigation), and do likewise to victims of the July 7 bombings, to the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and to the families of soldiers killed in action almost beggars belief.
What once seemed, to many, a rather 'drier' – but still outrageous - story of celebrities complaining about breaches of privacy now seems that much more shocking.
But it is also a shocking example of corporate power unchecked, of where rampant profiteering, vicious union-bashing and the manipulation of the political process leads. Rupert Murdoch derives his power from his assaults on organised labour. He has been unassailable since he drove unions out of his company at Wapping in the 1980s.
To break the print unions, and undermine the NUJ, required considerable political support and police assistance. Murdoch got both willingly during the 1986-87 dispute (many trade unionists have the scars to prove it), and thus was cemented a cosy relationship between News International, police and government that has been toxic ever since.
In this context, the suspicious dilatoriness of the police in acting over the initial phone hacking allegations – and the payments made to individual officers by News International – and the failure of every government since the 80s to stand up to Murdoch on anything makes perfect sense. Unaccountable corporate power assisted by government and in cahoots with the police. This is what democracy and a free press in 2011 looks like.
What does this all mean for us as NUJ members, journalists and socialists? For one, it demonstrates the urgent need for union recognition everywhere. At News International, journalists have no effective source of redress for any concerns they may have about ethics and intimidation (the compliant 'yellow' union the News International Staff Association – NISA – can be safely discounted). By contrast, when the Daily Star tried to run a racist 'Daily Fatwa' front page early in the last decade, the NUJ chapel, led by our now general secretary Michelle Stanistreet, got together to register a protest and block the page.
NUJ members are also bound by our code of conduct, which stipulates that a journalist “obtains material by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means”, and “does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest”. What's been going on at the News of the World flagrantly breaches those clauses.
Strong unions can make a difference over standards. It is no coincidence that the phone-hacking story was broken by NUJ members, working for a paper, The Guardian, where the NUJ has a strong chapel.
Which is all in contrast to the Press Complaints Commission, which has over and again proved to be utterly toothless when confronted with outrages such as this. At the NUJ's recent Delegate Meeting in Southport we passed a motion calling for the union to campaign for the PCC's abolition and its replacement with a genuinely independent and democratic regulatory body with teeth. This must now be a priority campaign. A self-selecting body run by the industry's great and the good has failed us totally. Unions and the public need a say on a new industry watchdog.
Because the allegations against the NoTW throw up another threat – of government over-regulation of a free press. We have already seen people seeking to use this scandal to tar all journalists with the same brush, which gives those who would muzzle the press and stamp down on genuine investigative journalism their excuse.
This is a crisis not of journalism in general but of media control and accountability. The NUJ has been arguing for some time that we need alternative forms of media ownership, that are more accountable, less obsessed with narrow profiteering and that give media workers some control. The union's efforts to support co-operative, mutual and other democratic models, that fully respect union rights, should be stepped up. Whether at News International or Newsquest, the old corporate model fails journalists and fails the public.
Simply calling for a public inquiry into these allegations of criminality is inadequate. Inquiries come and go, and usually change little. We need to campaign for:
Newscorp's bid for BskyB to be rejected out of hand. By standing by the former NoTW editor Rebekkah Brooks, on whose watch the worst offences took place, Murdoch is showing himself to be not fit and proper to control a major broadcaster.
Full unionisation of the entire media. Only strong unions can effectively combat overbearing and unethical managements; our code of conduct should become statutory
A proper debate and inquiry into media ownership in general, in the interests of plurality and the interests of media workers and the public
The best response to this crisis is to argue and campaign ever more forcefully for strong unions and journalistic standards. As someone once said, we cannot go on like this.
Thursday, 7 July 2011
Journalists hit out at Murdoch's media empire
This statement was released by the National Union of Journalists' Left at 3pm today. By 5pm News of the World has closed: