Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tabloid phone hacking

Last night's Dispatches programme on Channel 4 lifted the lid on the newspaper phone hacking scandal. Reporter Alex Thomson, more familiar from Channel 4 news, (follow him on Twitter @alextomo) took us through the background to the story and interviewed a range of people, from Max Clifford to Alistair Campbell, revealing a much bigger and more wide-ranging scandal than many people had imagined.

Last month, the Prime Minister's Press secretary, Andy Coulson, resigned from his post because of the continuing revelations from the phone hacking scandal that dated back to 2006 or even earlier. At that time, Coulson had been editor of the News of the World, when a reporter, Clive Goodman, was found to have hacked into the voicemails of members of the Royal Family. He always denied any knowledge of the reporter's activity, claiming he and a private investigator who did the hacking had been acting on their own, but as more evidence emerges, it was clear from last night's programme that it would be very hard to imagine that he had no knowledge of what was going on.

The programme showed how pressure on reporters to generate stories in the cut-throat competition of tabloid journalism led to them resorting to illegal means. It also pointed to the possibility of cover-ups at the highest levels, with interviewees suggesting that the police were reluctant to investigate because the News of the World had a history of paying police officers for information. The programme also alleged that other newspapers have been phone hacking for several years themselves, which explains why they have given so little coverage to the story.

Alex Thomson was shown just how easy it is for information to be gathered online about an individual, including finding their mobile phone number, and then the trick, which I won't repeat here, for getting access to their voicemail. Suffice to say that it is wise to change the pin code on your voicemail if you don't want reporters snooping on your messages...

The programme suggested around 4000 people's phones have been tapped, and that figure could be much higher, with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and many others now asking the police to see if there was evidence that they too had been victims of it. The newspaper regulatory body, the PCC, was shown to have little or no power as Thomson noted that it had been lied to by the News of the World.

So why does this matter? Well, it seems to me that this is an important question for media students and raises important issues about the media in a democracy. If journalists can get away with hacking into phones and publishing details of people's private conversations which they have collected illegally and then when the police are asked to investigate, nothing happens, that is quite significant.

Labour MP Tom Watson, who we met in a previous blog as one of the few defenders of videogames in Parliament argued in the programme that politicians were too scared to tackle News International over the phone hacking scandal and I think he's right. Tom is worth following on twitter too. @tom_watson And why are politicians scared? Because newspapers still have a lot of power and they are afraid that the Murdoch papers- The Sun, The News of the World, but also The Times and Sunday Times can turn public opinion against them. The stories from hacked voicemails that papers were publishing during the last few years were not just about the antics or personal lives of celebrities, they also included politicians.

Finally, the programme gave a pretty strong indication of why Rupert Murdoch would rush over from the USA to take personal charge of the response to the scandal now- he is attempting to buy the remaining 61% of BSkyB which he doesn't currently own and the government has to decide whether it is in our interests to have someone controlling even more of our media. If he gets a lot of bad publicity, then maybe the decision will go against him, but if he can smooth things over... Of course, he has the help of his son, James Murdoch and the help of Rebekah Brooks, the Chief Executive of News International who admitted to a committee in parliament that the organisation had been known to pay police officers for information. They helped by having the Prime Minister, David Cameron, over to dinner during the christmas break...purely social, nothing to do with any of these shenanigans. That's the same David Cameron who employed the dodgy Andy Coulson as his trusted Press Secretary...

Anyway, if you didn't see it, here it is on 4OD

Can TV presenters say what they like?

Following the recent arguments around representation of social groups in Eastenders and Come Fly with Me, which I covered in January, there have been more discussions of representation in the media, notably the Sky Sports sexist remarks incident, which led to the sacking of Andy Gray and the resignation of Richard Keys, followed by the Mexican car comments made by Top Gear presenters.

Though Gray and Keys tried to argue that their comments were meant as a joke, anyone who heard them would find this hard to believe, given the tone in which they were said. Gray in particular is known for the speed with which he criticises referees (often very unfairly, in my view) and this just seemed to take it one step further in suggesting that referee's assistant Sian Murray shouldn't have been there simply because she was female. Interestingly, evidence from Italy, where female officials at games are much more frequently seen, suggests that the accuracy of their decision-making is much higher than male officials- but you wouldn't expect Gray to know about that (or that he would believe it). The number of videos which suddenly emerged of the pair's sexist behaviour and attitudes in the days following the incident suggested not so much 'dark forces at work' as Keys called it, as people biding their time having had to put up with the pair and the unpleasant working atmosphere over a long period of time at Sky. The hilarious interview Keys gave to talksport radio, where he sounds like a cross between Alan Partridge and David Brent, gradually digging a deeper hole for himself as he attempts to apologise, hours before his resignation, is reproduced below.

Jeremy Clarkson's speech at the National Television Awards took a different view. he argued that it was all indeed harmless banter and that if the BBC had taken a similar line, he and his colleagues would have been sacked 100 times. He suggested that

"we've arrived at the stage now where you actually can be busted for heresy by thought, which is terrifying. You could think a thought and someone could sack you for it. While we try very hard on Top Gear not to be sexist, if a man wants to think that, then that's fine. You should be allowed to think what you want to."

The trouble is, that it's all very well for middle aged men to say they should have freedom of speech about whatever they want, but at whose expense? Insider comments from Sky suggested that Keys and Gray had effectively been sexist bullies at the studio for a long time and that women did not feel they could complain. maybe the same is true at Top Gear? Certainly, Steve Coogan thinks so. At the weekend, he wrote an extraordinarily damning piece for The Guardian, where he attacked the casual racism of the Top Gear trio. It is extraordinary because Coogan has been a guest on the show three times in the past and because of just how damning his comments were.

He described Jeremy as being like a school bully and argued that if the jokes about Mexicans had been substituted for Pakistanis or Jews, there is no way they would have got away with it. Coogan describes the comic writers he has worked with as a

"diverse, eclectic group of people with one common denominator: they could all defend and justify their comedy from a moral standpoint. They are laughing at hypocrisy, human frailty, narrow-mindedness. They mock pomposity and arrogance.

If I say anything remotely racist or sexist as Alan Partridge, for example, the joke is abundantly clear. We are laughing at a lack of judgment and ignorance. (whereas) With Top Gear it is three rich, middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans. Brave, groundbreaking stuff, eh?"

I agree with Coogan's argument- you should read it in full here- because Top Gear is not some minority programme with a tiny audience of like minded middle aged casual racists, but is actually one of the BBC's biggest programmes with a huge audience of young kids, who look up to these three. As Coogan says:

"The Lads have this strange notion that if they are being offensive it bestows on them a kind of anti-establishment aura of coolness; in fact, like their leather jackets and jeans, it is uber-conservative (which isn't cool).... Big viewing figures don't give you impunity – they carry responsibility. Start showing some, tuck your shirts in, be a bit funnier and we'll pretend it all never happened"

Judge for yourself!

What's the point of media education?

Every now and again, usually at 'A' level results time, you get media coverage attacking the subject of Media Studies. David Buckingham's excellent presentation from the Media Magazine conference gives an overview of these attacks and offers some strong rebuttals of them. It happens at all levels, though, with people arguing that students shouldn't be 'wasting their time' with the media but should be learning to read and write and add up, whether it be children in primary schools, English in KS3 (last year's story about a school teaching about The Simpsons), at GCSE and A level ('dumbing down' when you supposedly should be doing Science and Languages) and even at university (where supposedly graduates in Media are heading for jobs in fast food outlets and nothing better).

Often Media teachers are put on the back foot trying to defend the subject from these attacks. A new project, which I am jointly co-ordinating with Jon Wardle from Bournemouth University, seeks to offer the opportunity to set out an agenda for studying the media, by asking a range of academics, teachers and others to write their own 'manifesto for media education'. We already have contributions, among others, from Henry Jenkins, David Buckingham and David Gauntlett and are adding more every week. We are keen to add the views of students, either as comments on the articles already there, or as full pieces, if you want to write one. We already have one video contribution from students which we will be adding to the site shortly, so if you'd rather make a video about your reasons for studying the media, that would be fine too!

Anyway, check it out, read the articles and see if you are inspired to respond- all welcome!