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Hacked off?

Saying sorry is not enough.

Here and now I would like to categorically reassure the readers of this blog, of buildersmerchantsjournal.net and of BMJ that I have never published any stories that were acquired through the hacking of a mobile-phone.

I wouldn’t have the first idea how to go about hacking into a mobile. Phew. I bet you all feel a lot better now, knowing that. All those orders for bricks, bathroom suites, bags of cement and sealant can safely be kept in the voicemail box, along with the ‘I’m stuck in traffic on the M4, I’ll be late’ and the ‘Don’t forget you need bread and milk up on your way home, dear’ messages.

It strikes me that anyone going through anyone’s voicemail messages must have a far higher boredom threshold than normal people, bearing in mind how mundane my own messages are.

But smart-alec comments aside, there is no doubt that hacking into a mobile phone is wrong. Not least because it’s, er, illegal. And paying the police for information received is wrong. Not least because it’s, er, illegal.

So it is right and proper that News International is being called to account. I find it hard to believe that the Editor of the News of the World did not know that there was a degree of phone hacking going on. I find it less hard to believe that, in an organisation the size of News Corporation, that information did not necessarily pass up the food chain.

I think it’s a great shame that a long-standing newspaper and 200 associated journalists, sub-editors, designers and secretaries have, in effect, been sacrificed in order to save another part of the company. Whether that was to save the BSKYB bid (which I’m sure will re-emerge in the fullness of time) or the skin of the (now ex-) chief executive, no-one will ever be quite sure.

But I think it’s worth bearing in mind another question – where did we all think these stories were coming from? Tabloid newspapers have a job to do and it’s a job that the general public appreciates, else why would the papers sell so well? The culture of tabloid newspapers is ‘get the story at any cost, because if you don’t, your rivals will’.

If we didn’t have people digging around for stories, then the press would be, well, Heat magazine, full of press releases and posed paparazzi photographs. Paying for stories has always been part of that and building close relationships with politicians and the police has always been part of that. But police receiving payments in exchange for information is illegal and harks back to the corruption of the 1960s. Then it was the porn barons, today it’s the press barons.

We’re very good in this country at witchhunts and finger-wagging. Ironically, it’s the tabloid press that tends to lead this.

While it was ‘just’ celebrities whose privacy was invaded, the tabloid-buying public wasn’t really that bothered. But once the news about the messages of Milly Dowler, the July bombing families, September 11 victims and families, Afghanistan soldiers’ families – normal, real, grieving people – came out, the public turned.

I think there are also some unforgiveable business sins that News International/News of the World committed, quite apart from the immorality and illegality of actions which may or may not have been sanctioned: they started to believe that they were above the law, they believed their own publicity and, worst of all, they forgot who their customer was and what is important to that customer base.

Forget your customer at your peril. And that goes for all of us.

Incidentally, the quote above is Rupert Murdoch himself, speaking to the Select Committee this afternoon (July 19).

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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