Over the last month, journalists the world over have had to defend their profession following the News of the World scandal. I’ve resisted the urge to write about this until I’d really mulled the issue over in my mind. Interestingly, it was the death of Amy Winehouse that cemented my views on the News of the World scandal.
I suspect that some of my views and opinions aren’t likely to be popular or mainstream. However, they represent my position at this point in time. And I think that they have significant implications for freelance writers and photographers.
It’s easy to demonise News Limited and its executives. After all, a large company is an easy target. But I can’t get past the fact that the phone bugging and tampering with evidence and investigations (and I have no doubt that is what happened concerning the murder of Milly Dowler) was the work of individuals. At risk of invoking echoes of Godwin’s Law most acts of corporate evil occur with the compliance or acceptance of individuals.
Investigations are still progressing but the reality is that phones were bugged by specific people. If they were acting on the instructions of News Limited executives then those executives, the reporters, private investigators and others involved in the entire act ought be prosecuted.
So, where does Amy Winehouse fit into this? There is a monstrous public appetite for scandal and insight into the private lives of famous people. The public appetite for insight into the minutiae of celebrity lives has spawned an entire publishing industry. Frankly, I’ve been nothing less then disgusted by the coverage of Amy Winehouse’s tragic death. In particular, Winehouse’s membership in the so-called “27 Club” has been made into a macabre quasi-celebration. Somehow, the death of a young woman of great talent has been lost. The editors of Australia’s Fairfax newspapers may have reached a new low when they published a story about some of the lesser known members of what Winehouse’s family called the “Stupid Club”.
The News of the World scandal may have exploded but the fuel was a new low in journalistic ethics and the public’s desire for salacious detail about the famous. Although the greatest outrage has rightly been focussed on the interference into the the Milly Dowler investigation, there had been plenty of other phone tapping with Siena Miller winning a settlement several weeks before the scandal broke. This has been a steadily growing cancer within News Limited (and perhaps other organisations as has been speculated and is now being investigated) for some time.
The two issues here are that the public appetite for private, personal information has created media market where spying on celebrities has become acceptable. Photographers, equipped with powerful telephoto lenses, now climb tree hundreds of metres from a celebrity’s home for a candid shot. If the public is outraged then they can do something about it. The public can stop clicking on invasive news stories and not buy the papers that specialise in this sort of reporting.
Secondly, journalists and photographers need to define their personal ethics, publish them and stick to them (technology writer David Pogue does this although he is currently embroiled in his own ethics scandal). I have not spoken to a single person that thinks News of the World acted responsibly and ethically in tapping phones. But very few people have pointed the finger at individual journalists. The problem, particularly for freelancers, is that if you say no to a job, then you lose income – something that’s tough to accept in an increasingly tight market where freelancer.com and its ilk are slashing pay rates.
The News of the World scandal is an opportunity for every journalist and photographer to think about what they will and won’t do for a pay cheque. I’ve had to say no to work in the past where I was being asked to write about subjects that I felt to be contrary to my beliefs. It wasn’t a large amount of money but I felt better for not compromising on an issue that personally important to me. If I had made a small break in the rules then, a slightly larger break would have been easy later. And that’s how ethical behaviour collapses.