Hacking scandal: lessons for Pakistani media

“This Sunday will be the last issue of the News of the World,” announced James Murdoch, son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, on Thursday. Not many people would have imagined that they would be seeing the last ever edition of a 168-year-old tabloid and Britain’s largest selling Sunday newspaper News of the World (NOTW). Former NOTW editor Andy Coulson, former NOTW royal editor Clive Goodman and an unnamed 63-year-old man were arrested in this regard but all three have been released on bail. Murdoch’s media empire is known for being ruthless and unscrupulous; it is for this reason that he is considered to be one of the world’s most influential people. Murdoch’s media empire has a strong presence in several parts of the world, be it Australia, the US, the UK and Asia. The decision to close down NOTW was Murdoch’s bid to avoid more controversy amidst the latest and the most shocking phone hacking scandal to have rocked Britain. Murdoch’s News Corp was all set to takeover the British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) with its £ 10 billion-plus bid but now the deal could be in jeopardy.

British Prime Minister David Cameron denounced the unethical practices at the NOTW. “Murder victims, terrorist victims, families who have lost loved ones in war, sometimes defending our country, that these people could have had their phones hacked into in order to generate stories for a newspaper is simply disgusting,” said Mr Cameron. He has announced two inquiries: the first one “to get to the bottom of the specific revelations and allegations” and the second to “look at the culture, the practices and the ethics of the British press”. Mr Cameron is under a lot of pressure as Andy Coulson worked for him as his communications director for four years. The British prime minister took full responsibility for giving Coulson “a second chance” despite a previous hacking scandal. The ramifications of this scandal are now lapping at Cameron’s feet as his judgement is in question.

What the whole NOTW controversy shows is how murky the world of journalism becomes once the media starts stretching the boundaries of ethical journalism. The obsession with prurient information is not just part of human history but has touched new heights in modern times. The concept of privacy is under threat now. The tabloid British press is an old villain in this sorry state of affairs, which has now become a monster in the name of free speech. The NOTW scandal and Cameron’s political crisis show us how an inappropriate nexus between the politicians and the media is good for neither. Politicians run the risk of being dragged down due to the worst practices of the popular media. At the same time, it is important for media people to maintain a distance from power. There are lessons here to be learnt by the Pakistani media.

Pakistan’s English press is by and large not sensationalist or sleazy. However, there are some exceptions where opinion is masqueraded as news, which blurs the distinction between the two. The Urdu press, on the other hand, is certainly more unrestrained in sensationalising news and has a prurient interest in scandals, gossip and unsubstantiated reports. As for the electronic media, state-owned PTV has never indulged in sensationalist journalism but the new electronic media is another story altogether. There is hardly any editorial control over private TV channels’ contents and in their race for breaking news and ratings, most news channels run unverified stories and offer no apology if proved wrong. Talk shows have descended into fish markets rather than being a forum for reasoned debate.

The Pakistani media, however, should not turn itself into something like NOTW. British democracy has established a system whereby its media can correct itself without necessarily resorting to a draconian regime of censorship. In Pakistan, there are many journalists who are said to be either close to the politicians, security establishment and powerful institutions of the state. If our media wants to adequately fulfil its role, it has to distance itself from power and develop a sense of responsibility. Wrong practices must stop. Our readers and viewers deserve honest reporting and not yellow journalism.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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