29 Jul 2011

Who guards the guards? Scandal and corruption in the UK

The News of the World's last issue, photo from guardian.co.uk
For a keen follower of media issues, the past month was a great time to be visiting the UK. In case you missed it, a huge scandal blew up over illegal practices at the News of the World newspaper, which itself turned into a scandal about the amount of influence News International (the paper's owners) had over the police and senior politicians. The result was what one respected media commentator described as a "revolution".

I won't recount the full story here as it is long enough to fill a book (or two), but I will try to cover the key points in brief before thinking about the story's implications for the Tanzania media. And if you want to understand it in more detail, I would strongly recommend the (UK) Guardian's coverage - it was their journalists who exposed most of this in the first place.

So what's it all about? Well, the starting point is illegal mobile phone hacking of voicemail messages that took place at the News of the World newspaper several years ago. We've known for some years that it took place because there was a criminal case that resulted in a journalist and a private investigator going to prison. But the paper and its parent companies, News International and News Corp, claimed this was simply one "rogue reporter", that very few people had been hacked that the editors and senior staff knew nothing about it. None of this ever seemed likely to be true, and indeed, in the last few months, more and more evidence has been coming out about the scale of the hacking (and other illegal practices). It's now alleged that thousands of people's phones were hacked and that the police were bribed to provide journalists with information.

It was the allegation that even the phone of a murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, had been hacked that brought the story to mass attention. It was no longer just celebrities and politicians phones being hacked, but ordinary citizens in times of crisis. The result was a public uproar and calls for senior staff at News International - particularly Rebekah Brooks, the News of the World's former editor and (until this month) News International's Chief Executive. But rather than resign, Brooks and her bosses James and Rupert Murdoch, decided to close the News of the World. The UK's best selling newspaper, over 160 years old, became perhaps the biggest casualty of the whole episode.

But in another way, the paper's closure was just the beginning of the scandal unfolding. A story about illegal news gathering practices turned into a story about the undue influence of News International. Over the course of several days, more and more evidence came to light of the police not taking the original phone hacking investigation seriously, of Rebekah Brooks (and others at News International) having very close relationships with senior politicians (including the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who had employed Andy Coulson, another former News of the World editor, as his Press Secretary, as well as being close friends with Brooks). A picture was painted of politicians (of both major parties) and the police being either too close to the Murdochs and News International and/or too scared of their power to take them on. It seemed the company had become so powerful that it was effectively unaccountable, above the law.

As more and more revelations came out, the list of casualties grew. The country's most senior police officer resigned, as did one of his deputies. Rebekah Brooks found that closing the News of the World did not draw enough of a line under the story and had to resign herself as well. Several former News of the World reporters and editors have been arrested, including Brooks (but not charged). And Rupert and James Murdoch, together with Brooks, were summoned to explain themselves to parliament, as were three senior police officers. And News Corp found themselves effectively forced to withdraw from their attempt to buy BSkyB, the UK's biggest TV company (by revenue), a move that will literally have cost the Murdochs billions of dollars.

It isn't over yet, though the scandal has been replaced on front pages by tragedies elsewhere. A Judicial Inquiry is being set up to examine what happened at the News of the World and the police and at the relationship between politicians and the media, which will feed a steady drip of revelations over the coming months and years. And the police investigation continues, presumably with more vigour than was previously the case.

But up to now, the most obvious lesson learned is summed up by the promise of the Prime Minister that "never again should we let a media group get too powerful."

And a second lesson is also valuable. The Guardian plausibly argues that it's only because of their not-for-profit ownership structure that they were i) sufficiently politically independent, ii) not under pressure to increase sales using illegal news gathering techniques, and iii) able to dedicate time and resources to investigating phone hacking over the months and years when other news organisations were ignoring the story entirely. So it turns out that the best answer, in this case at least, to the old question "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (Who guards the guardians?) is in fact The Guardian.

In other words, having a large number of different media companies is important, but so is diversity (having different types of companies). And more specifically, the Guardian's proud independence from both political and commercial interests is a strong example.

Here in Tanzania, there may be a lot of media companies but just a handful dominate the landscape, all of which are close to political interests of one kind or another. In terms of diversity, we have publicly and privately owned media houses, but very little by way of non-profit news media.

I'm sure we can all imagine a situation where a newspaper or newspaper owner does something illegal and puts pressure on politicians and/or the police to let it lie in return for more favourable coverage? Or the other way around, where powerful political and/or business interests combine to prevent the media from performing its watchdog role?

The scandal in the UK showed the relationship between the media and politics to be corrupt, but in a different sense from how corruption is usually thought of in Tanzania. It's not a case of money changing hands, people buying influence or stealing public money, but rather of powerful people helping each other out by bending the rules in ways that leave the public worse off. I'm sure we can all imagine that happening in Tanzania as well?