Perhaps a slightly misleading title, as, apparently, quite a few people DO care. A story which has been rumbling along since 2006, about a private investigator hired by the News of the World to hack into the private mobile phone voicemail accounts of prominent individuals, has taken a dramatic turn in recent days with the successive revelations that, in addition to gossip-rag-friendly celebrities, those targeted included Amanda ‘Milly’ Dowler, who was at the time missing after her murder by Levi Bellfield, relatives of London bombing victims, and the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who had just been murdered by Ian Huntley. Such is the volume of individuals affected that The Guardian’s Data Blog has set up a searchable list of known victims.
From a public opinion perspective, the story is interesting for three main reasons. The first is the ability of the active public to influence the workings of government. Citing extraordinary media interest, and support from amongst their own number, MPs have secured permission from the Speaker for an emergency debate in the House in order to call for a full public inquiry.
News International executives are now frantically scrabbling to discover who knew that phone hacking was taking place, and indeed who sanctioned individual targets. They have already issued an apology, though that was before the latest and most emotionally charged revelations. Former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson resigned as David Cameron’s Director of Communications in January over the continued “drip drip” of scandal. Damage may yet be done to the PM by the association, as proof emerges that Coulson personally authorised illegal payments to police officers during his tenure. His predecessor as Editor, current Chief Executive of News International Rebekah Brooks, is now coming under pressure to consider her own position, a position which appears increasingly untenable, despite The Sun’s “collector’s item” defence of senior management generally, and her own denials of wrongdoing, on raw commercial grounds (see below), setting aside all suggestion of moral responsibility (which it is safe to do, given the sort of people we’re clearly dealing with). There are even calls for the government to suspend the decision to allow Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corporation and so ultimately of the News of the World, to complete his takeover of BSkyB. A petition is now online.
Most damagingly for the News of the World itself, a campaign is now under way to persuade advertisers to part company with the title. This is a hugely significant step. Not just because it draws upon the latest trends in social media to mobilise an active public faster and with lower entry costs than might historically have been possible, but because it strikes at the very heart of the modern media system. In their analysis of the “political economy of the mass media”, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky set out five “news filters”, five sources of influence which affect what particular pieces of information go on to become news. Briefly, these are the ownership of a news producer, the economic dependence of news producers on advertising revenue, the information dependence of journalists on ‘official’ sources, the capacity of powerful actors to ‘discipline’ truculent news producers with ‘flak’, and finally the existence of over-arching political discourses (such as ‘anti-communism’ or terrorism) which establish standards of loyalty and constrain the boundaries of legitimate debate. The phone hacking scandal affects media ownership, because it is widely known that, ultimately, Rupert Murdoch owns The News of the World (and The Sun, The Times, and The Sunday Times, for that matter). Murdoch’s plans to expand his ownership stake in BSkyB could be delayed or even scuppered if the government perceives the political damage from slighting him is now less than that of being seen to stand up for him. Advertisers pulling out would undermine the News of the World’s entire business model, and could even prove contagious within the News International family. Roy Greenslade, over at the newly-launched Huffington Post UK, reports that such acts are nearly unprecedented in the UK. The impact on information sources is difficult to predict, but whether public figures will feel able to maintain relationships with the News of the World remains an open question. As for flak, normally it is News International that dishes out most of the flak seen in the UK system; hence why Coulson was hired by Cameron as his media man in the first place.
If the twitterati succeed in any of their declared aims; forcing the resignation of News International’s Chief Executive, having the BSkyB takeover suspended, or undermining the News of the World’s business model by persuading advertisers to pull out (Ford, npower, Halifax, T Mobile, and Orange having already made the move), it will mark a massive victory for the active public. It also, perhaps, signifies a shift in the balance of power between institutions and individuals within public debate. Twitter and the like have so lowered the barriers to entry limiting participation in that debate that the advantages previously associated with being a massive news organisation have been significantly reduced. Opinions which previously could only be expressed by getting past the editor onto the letters page of a paper, or by successfully lobbying an MP who in turn managed to get a question onto the order paper, are now catapulted into the ether in seconds. Their quick agglomeration into genuine mass campaigns, facilitated by the ‘networking’ aspects of ‘social networking’, creates instant momentum. And governments and businesses alike must respond. There is a great deal of work to be done looking at the role of social media in the Arab spring, too much to get into here. But it may be that the overthrow of News International by a coalition of geeks, parliamentarians, and Hugh Grant marks a lower-level British version of the same trends.