One of the consequences of the phone hacking trial is that none of the institutions involved – the newspaper industry, the Police, the political establishment – emerge with any credit. At a time when some humility might have seemed sensible The Sun chose a front page headline, A Great Day for Red Tops, which smacked of triumphalism and suggests that the Murdoch Empire has learned few lessons from this whole sorry saga.
For the public, one of the most shocking things to emerge from the trial was just how close leading politicians from both main parties are to the people who own and run national newspapers. Understandably many people will ask if this is good for democracy. However, it is worth noting that such cosy relationships also exist at a more local level.
Several years ago I was heading up media relations for a medium sized local authority when the Councillors decided to sack the Chief Executive. The editor of the main local newspaper buried the story away on an inside page and didn’t ask any questions about why the dismissal had occurred or how much the pay off would cost local tax payers . A few weeks later I asked the editor why he hadn’t made more of the story and he simply said that he didn’t want to rock the boat. Of course not all local newspapers are as supine and many do expose wrong doing by local institutions. For example, in the mid 1990s the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser did a good job in highlighting the scandal of blatant nepotism and corruption at Monklands District Council.
The irony is that politicians don’t need the support of mass market newspapers anything like as much as they did in the past. Declining newspaper circulation figures and the growth of social media outlets mean that the days when Rupert Murdoch could proudly boast that “It was The Sun Wot Won It” are long gone. In 2011 the SNP won the elections to the Scottish Parliament without one single newspaper backing them during the campaign.
As for the media, perhaps they ought to remember the words of the US writer Finley Peter Dunne who said that “the business of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It’s hard to see how hacking the phone of a murdered teenage girl meets that criteria.