July 22, 2011

Why It's Important to Focus on Hackgate

The 'revelation' of the hacking culture, endemic to the practices of the News of the World has had constant headline attention for a couple of weeks now. I say 'revelation', but in reality, the story has been out for half a decade and only when it was revealed that the NotW included a murdered school girl in their phone book of hackery did the world suddenly wake up and realise something was wrong. Executives across media, police and government are falling like shot pheasants and twitter folk have started betting on what ridiculous new development will be unveiled next.

The reaction of the tabloids has been very interesting to say the least. They gave the whole affair a couple of days standard coverage, in line with the 'ultra-left, agenda-driven' BBC and Guardian, reporting it as a shocking scandal. But then they back-pedalled furiously, realising that the conversation had turned to all media and reformation of press regulation. Suddenly, all newspapers were in the spotlight and their cosy club of self-regulation was under threat. So now we have 'hey - look over there!' headlines asking 'Why are we still talking about the News Int scandal when people are dying/the economy is terrible/bins collections only happen once a fortnight?'. I have heard similar arguments from friends and acquaintances who are more interested in other debates, like rescuing the economy or pulling out of conflict zones.

Firstly, it's important to cover a couple of simple problems with the 'why talk about x, when y is worse?' argument. This is the type of narrow-thinking that got Richard Dawkins in trouble after dismissing western feminine issues because Middle-Eastern women had it so much worse. You can't just ignore a problem, just because there are other, arguably bigger, problems. If there are issues to be faced, face them. Otherwise, we'd have to deal with the problems of the world one-by-one in descending order of seriousness and we'd never get a weekly bin collection!

Furthermore, the economic traumas and the problems in the Middle-East don't always have headline news. Certainly there are serious issues and problems to overcome, but 'We're still in debt, guys' and 'The war's not over yet' don't really make for good headlines and no one wants to watch a live, rolling-news conference of parliament discussing the lack of any further development. The News International scandal is fresh, it's unfolding every day and the key players are being interrogated, arrested and questions right now. It is headline news.

But more importantly, why should we care? If this scandal hadn't broken, the papers would have found something else to put on page 1, right? A quick glance through the archives show they are content to just stick a minor celebrity in the prime position if nothing else is happening.

We should care because the media is the portal between the public and the rest of the world. We, as individuals, cannot investigate every organisation and even we're interested in. We need the media to inform us about what is happening, who is involved and why things are turning the way they are. We rely on them to keep us informed.

And unfortunately, the looking glass of the printed press has for too long been coloured in the biases of the editors; the lens has been shaped to magnify nonsense celebrity news, distort difficult issues like immigration and refract our line of sight from the hard facts. Newspaper readers are not being shown the world as it really is - they are being shown a bloated version of their own biases, cycled through the propaganda wagon, editorialised beyond recognition until everyday, intelligent people see the world as a broken, uber-politically-correct, pedantically-governed teenage wasteland, drowning in immigrants, who steal all our jobs and then try and blow us up. It's not fair on the readers and it's not fair on the country whose government feels the need to pander to these readers.

At last, the media is in the spotlight. After years, decades, of refusing to take a good, hard look at itself for 'dog doesn't eat dog' (Nick Davies, Flat Earth News), finally we are beginning to see the dangers of the current state of our media. We are looking into proper regulation. We are holding them to account. We have a chance to build a new era of better news publication that serves the public as well as its bank balance. We deserve it. And to do it, we cannot take our eye off the ball in this 'hackgate' scandal - we have to keep hammering this point home until something is done.

It is important.

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