“The News of the World hacked my brain!”, says media studies boffin.

Posted: July 6, 2011 in Media & Journalism

I remember getting a ribbing a few years ago from two colleagues in journalism studies about my political objections to Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. As it happened, they were also practicing journalists working for the Sunday Times and thought my views prejudiced and anti-academic. How could I teach my students the about the “newspaper industries” with such a subjective, political position on the biggest media conglomerate in the UK and Ireland? With tongue in cheek, I explained that my objections to the Murdoch empire are not as an academic but as a staunch Liverpool fan keen to maintain the boycott of the Sun on Merseyside. But it was clear that they simply could not see my problem with the popular press in Britain today and that they disapproved of me bringing it into the lecture theatre.

And there’s the problem right there and it’s not atypical of media and journalism studies on these islands. The rapid expansion of journalism training courses at university level – postgraduate and now increasingly undergraduate – has changed the focus of the discipline from a critical study of the news media in society to a rather uncritical relationship with journalism as an “industry” that accredits journalism training courses to produce “industry ready” graduates.

As a consequence of this shift from academic study to training, a teaching discipline once dominated by traditional academics in sociology and media studies is now mainly populated by former journalists who simply deliver skills and refrain from encouraging students to ask critical questions about the nature and role of the profession (or rather industry) they want to enter. This is not a conspiracy and there are always good exceptions to the rule but we now have a discipline populated by sheep in wolves’ clothing, to borrow a phrase from Robert Fisk. And if this is the prevailing philosophy in journalism teaching then we shouldn’t be too surprised, I suppose, if our “industry ready” graduates reproduce it in the newsroom. I am a hack, therefore I hack…so to speak.

But the colleagues I do wonder about are those who are not former journalists; colleagues who have published books and journal articles about journalism but who still adopt the rhetoric of the market when approaching the study of journalism. How will they see the Murdoch empire now amid the continuing phone hacking scandal at The News of the World? I would imagine they will present it to their students and their peers as an “interesting case study” in the debate about newspaper regulation and the extent to which the Press Complaints Commission has failed in its brief to halt the wildest excesses of rampant “tabloid journalism”. They might encourage students to conclude in seminars and essays that The News of the World scandal shows that sometimes journalism can get things very wrong and that sometimes some journalists behave badly. And perhaps they might put things into “perspective” and declare that in the main British journalism is among the best in the world.

That’s all fine and reasonable…to a point. I’ve often taken such an approach in lectures and seminars but I go much further than that. For the hacking scandal at The News of the World isn’t just a question of journalism law, ethics and regulation. To think of it exclusively on those terms is to limit proper understanding of what this scandal tells us about newspapers – what they are and how they work in a free market.

Why did News of the World journalist hack into mobile phones on such a scale? Because they could – no one told them otherwise. Why not? Because scandal and sensation sells newspapers and editors and journalists in the British press are under immense pressure to deliver profit to their masters. Why did they get away with it for so long? Because the police turned a blind eye. And why did they do that? Because the police are prime newspaper sources and many police officers take payment from journalists for information. As for the government and parliament, we’ve got lots of outrage and condemnation. So will they now finally act to curb the power of the Murdoch press? Will they now block the transfer of BSkyB into the total control of the Murdoch empire? Somehow I don’t think so.

I could go on but the point is this: newspapers and television in a free market do not work in isolation. They operate as part of a political economy, a network of political and economic relationships ultimately governed by the profit motive. So let no colleague in journalism and media studies tell me anymore that I’m just an old leftie academic who hasn’t moved on with the times. Let them not preach to me about ethics and law and point me to the Press Complaints Commission as proof that our newspapers are properly regulated. Let them not wax lyrical to me about media pluralism and consumer choice.

Perhaps some day long ago at a dull conference on media pluralism, The News of the World hacked their brains and deleted their memory of Lenin’s old maxim on freedom of the press, written nearly one hundred years ago but which still stands true today? That the freedom of the press means “the freedom for the rich to publish and for the capitalists to control the newspapers, a practice which in all countries, including even the freeest, (has) produced a corrupt press(1917).

I’ll never tire telling my students that. And I’ll never apologize for it either.

  1. Rab says:

    The banking crisis was followed by revelations about MPs expenses and now it seems that the press can’t stoop low enough in the pursuit of profit. Public life looks rotten to the core. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the three crisis are in someway linked by a feeling that in the contemporary the powerful can act with impunity. This is after all the era of no alternative. But may be we are entering some sort of ‘endgame’ here.

    One other thing occurs to me about this scandal: that is the ease with which people’s privacy can be breached. Your phone can be hacked; you’re watched on CCTV; you’re movements through cyberspace are monitored; your consumer habits registered with every purchase. The News of the World hacking scandal is just the tip of a very large and chilling iceberg… Do you see what I did there? Chilling/iceberg…

  2. Yes Rab – very poetic of you!

    I was just thinking though: if the NoTW hacked my voicemails they would have field day of scandal and murk to report. “Ulster Media Boffin In Row With Orange!”, “Student stuck on train en route to appointment with lecturer! ‘No Comment’, says Translink!” “Are you still alive there son?” asks anxious mum of heartless academic!!

    Just as well I delete my messages on a regular basis eh?

  3. Dr. Disco says:

    There is an article on Rebekah Wade and the scandal here.


    By the way, there was a very interesting study done a couple of years ago on the polical economy of commercial radio..

  4. Dr. Disco says:

    Sorry, Brooks.

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