It was spring of 2005 when a suave looking man entered my classroom and started discussing ethics and media law. A lawyer by profession, his task was to impress upon young students, soon to be journalists, the importance of ethics and legalities while dealing with sticky situations.
Years later at another journalism school, my professor asked a question in the class, “If a person was murdered and his family was grieving and your editor told you to go to his house and ask for their reaction, would you do it?” Most of the students said, “Yes.” “What if the family said they didn’t want to speak to the media, would you ring the doorbell again?” Hesitant, some murmured a yes. Most said, “No.” “What if your editor really pressurized you and asked you to try again?” Only one hand rose in the class and a lone voice said, “Yes, I’ll try again.” And thus started a debate on how far will you go to get your story.
A good journalist will go any lengths to get a good story, an editor would say. But it all depends on what is a good story. In my opinion, one needs to weigh if it will do public good, hold organizations or people accountable for wrong doing or if the reason is to sell a commercially viable story.
So when a teenage girl was murdered and her phone was not only hacked by so called journalists, when the voicemail box became full, they even had the audacity to delete some messages, so space could be made for new ones full of anguish. So a juicy story could be filed the next day? So the newspaper would have an exclusive? So that it would sell more?
Journalists hacked phones and people’s email accounts, undertook surveillance at close and long range, sowed suspicion among friends and within families, induced people to become informants, threatened, blackmailed and bullied, especially those who stood up to them, and published rumours and lies to blacken people’s reputations.
Journalism lost that day. An untamed, intangible, malicious beast won instead. A beast in the form of black words on white paper.
Where in the world is it acceptable for journalists to do this just for a juicy tabloid story? And what about the work culture of such an organization which allegedly encouraged journalists to follow such practices. And whose editor and owners sat in the parliament saying they were unaware of these happenings in their backyard.
But the entire chain of events throw up a question – much like the chicken and eggs situation. Do newspapers stoop to such levels because this is what people will read and this sells? Or because the newspapers sell this, so the people will buy it. Who sets the agenda – the demand from the people or the newspaper sales? Have we moved away from a time when news was supposed to be the primary agenda setting entity? The Huffington Post blames the masses as much as it blames those journalists.
However, as the cliché goes, every cloud has a silver lining. The story has unfolded because a journalist broke this story. A newspaper published this. The people read it. A public opinion was formed. A legal recourse is underway. The beast, at last it seems, is going to be tamed. But for how long? There have been whispers that other tabloids have indulged in similar practices with vociferous denials from them. Maybe we should brace for another round of investigations and revelations.
But journalistic enquiry is testament to the fact that the system still works. That journalism might just win at the end of the day. That there is still hope that wrong will be righted and rigorous policies formulated so that journalism will not be shamed again.