When summer returns to Britain this year, there is concerted hope that a return to normality will bring with it a period of reconciliation and progress, no matter how abstract it may seem now. Yet, hidden among the toppled rubble of a turbulent pandemic will lie the remnants of a starker, decade-old crisis; its lessons weakened and legacy decayed.
Because, when the calendar flicks to July, it will have been ten years since the disgraced News of the World ceased to print. Its final front page, almost symbolic of its history of flagrant distortion, departed with astonishing ignorance of the ensuing crisis of journalistic integrity it had left in its wake: ‘Thank You and Goodbye’ it screeched.
The impact of the biggest peace-time scandal in British journalism that of the phone-hacking debacle, had a pronounced toll on public faith in the press, even today. Confidence in tabloids – and the print press – remains low, relatively untouched by coverage of Covid-19. However, it would be nonsensical to skip over its prevailing legacy on print journalism, even as sales plummet and outreach are diminished. After all, the mass-read online medium is increasingly becoming the dwarfed print edition’s custodian, facilitating the transfer from page to screen. For example, on the Express’ website, the transfer between the lexis of its online and print edition is seamless.
These sentiments raise fundamental questions about the apparent culture and duty of news outlets during a public health emergency, particularly those who mimic their print-edition relatives. As directors of discourse, they are core umpires in narrative building, despite philosophical contestation over their effect or ability to shape public opinion. Even if these publications had minimal influence on the national consciousness, spectacular recklessness has often blurred the line between speculation and news. In what now seems like a brazen lack of foresight, the Daily Mail attacked the prospect of a second lockdown on a dubious political and scientific basis in October. This follows historical misreporting on climate change, skewing the line between hard science and cynical distortion.
In his report (2012), Lord Justice Leveson noted that the “powerful megaphone” of the press and its lobbying efforts prevented it from yielding the required means for regulation and standards. This assessment is of keen reading during a national crisis, but this does not suggest that the press should be muzzled or reproached. Still, when confronted with the subject matter as complex and empirically multifaceted as a nascent virus, the distinction between raw political spin and scientific reality is rendered vital.
The key rests in the presentation of information, and adjacently, its divorce from mere commentary. It’s hardly a polemic, then, to dislodge the veneer of laissez-faire press standards when soliciting an examination of the Coronavirus coverage. The tragic lack of congruence in the bid to ‘save Christmas’ last December was especially redolent of the fantastical delusion issued by the News of the World in its departing issue of July 2011. One does wonder whether such reporting really constitutes reporting at all. This distinction is all the more apparent when confronting a rapidly-spreading virus.
When presiding over the UK’s pandemic death toll, deliberations over the sheer magnitude of the death count have demonstrated the media’s partial role in urging short-termism over prudence. In writing this, it is clear there is no imminent threat to journalism. But instead, it is a periodical one reflective of erroneous practices, with the emphasis being placed on the quality of print journalism. Therefore, the almost ten-year-old phone-hacking scandal illustrates this perfectly.
Hence, when the headline in summer may be liberty, one should spare a thought for its footnote. That being, of course, integrity.