Cross-post: Press ‘omerta’ – How newspapers’ failure to report the phone hacking scandal exposed the limitations of media accountability

Cross-posted on the Media Standards Trust blog, by Daniel Bennett and Judith Townend

“[Nick] Davies’s work…has gained no traction at all in the rest of Fleet Street, which operates under a system of omerta so strict that it would secure a nod of approbation from the heads of the big New York crime families” Peter Oborne, The Observer, April 2010

“There seemed to be some omerta principle at work that meant that not a single other national newspaper thought this could possibly be worth an inch of newsprint” Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, Newsweek, 2011

Tom Watson MP grabbed headlines last November when he accused James Murdoch of being a “mafia boss” and operating a code of silence, but he wasn’t the first to use the “media omerta” analogy in the phone hacking scandal.

The media’s treatment of developments had been markedly selective. Curiously, it was not just the News International titles that avoided certain avenues of inquiry, following The Guardian’s 2009 revelation of widespread voicemail interception.

In a chapter of a new book about phone hacking we examine Oborne and Rusbridger’s assertions that the press significantly under-reported the phone hacking scandal – a news story which would eventually lead to the demise of the News of the World, several high profile resignations and the ongoing Leveson Inquiry.

Despite significant revelations in July 2009 about the possible extent of phone hacking at the News of the World, coverage of the issue in the press was minimal. Exempting The Guardian and The Observer, a trawl of the articles published in the UK’s major national press titles between 10 June 2006 and 10 November 2011 reveals a failure to report the phone hacking scandal in a sustained and systematic manner.

As shown in our graphs here, there are distinctive patterns in levels of coverage and angles chosen by different national newspaper titles. Coverage only picked up after an investigation by the New York Times at the end of 2010 and the revelations of July 2011.

The story warranted very little newsprint before the major developments in 2011. Whereas The Guardian had written 237 articles by the end of 2010, The Independent had 83, the Daily Telegraph 46, and The Times 43. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tabloids gave the story barely minimal coverage. By the close of 2010, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday had written 38 articles, The Sun 17, and the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror a mere 11 [more on methodology here].

At various times between 2006 and 2011, aspects of the phone hacking story were simply not reported by British journalists. In the words of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, they were apparently ‘blinded’ to ‘the significance of the issue’.

In our chapter we look deeper into the ways media covered the story. We argue that explanations for the non-reporting of the phone hacking scandal need to delve beyond simplistic, if valid, assertions of industry cover-up.

To understand why the majority of national newspapers didn’t regard phone hacking as newsworthy, it is necessary to unpick a tangled web of contributing factors.

We explore competing professional, political and commercial interests; the failure of other organisations – particularly the Metropolitan Police – to investigate the matter thoroughly; and the intimidating power of News International.

On this occasion, a large part of the media failed to deem its own industry’s scandal ‘newsworthy’ enough to warrant proper attention, which has ramifications far beyond the phone hacking scandal.

The inclination for journalists not to regard a scandal within their own industry as ‘newsworthy’ is hardly surprising, but other stories might also be suppressed for a similar combination of professional, political and commercial interests – a fact that ought to be considered by Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry and other bodies considering the question of press regulation.

The vigour of journalism and healthy democratic debate is not merely dependent on the effective regulation of what is reported, it is also dependent on ensuring that harmful illegal activity is regarded as sufficiently ‘newsworthy’ to be investigated and reported.

A new system of regulation should not only end the abuse of self-regulation by the News of the World, it should also consider whether newspapers ought to be independently held to account for their editorial decisions regarding ‘newsworthiness’.

Our full chapter is available on the Social Science Research Network here. It is an extract from The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair (Arima 2012). The book was launched at an event in London on Tuesday 7 February.

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