By Ralph Negrine

The events surrounding the demise of the News of the World has focused our minds, once more, on what should be considered legitimate and permissible practice in journalism and, indeed, in the pursuit of ‘the story’. That the NotW may have used practices that are not only of dubious morality but also downright illegal should force us to ponder on where we – as commentators and journalists – should draw the line. Or, to put the matter slightly differently, who should draw the line.

Suggesting that lines should be drawn – either by journalists or by others to protect us (the public)  from them and them from themselves – may be controversial but that is no reason to ignore the subject. However, and significantly, to suggest that there is a case for lines to be drawn is not to argue that the media – in all its forms – should be reined in in any way. As many have long argued, the media must be free if society is to have a full and vibrant democratic order and the media are of importance in bringing corruption to light.

Yet we repeat these statements too often, too unthinkingly and at a price if we do not truly question the efficacy of the media. The scandal around the NotW has exposed the subject of corruption in the press, but what of a media system that does not systematically tackle institutional corruption or systemic failings – dare one mention the Metropolitan police in this context? Or of a media system that has been no more than a voice of its masters or a megaphone for political interests?

To defend the media and to argue that they perform a valuable role in our societies is of supreme importance but we should not treat those statements as more than what they are, namely, intentions and ambitions. Nor should we fail to be critical of the media if those ambitions are not fulfilled.

The danger in all this is that we simply take for granted and place beyond discussion the claims the media – and journalists – make for themselves without turning our critical eye to them. So, in the pursuit of ‘the story’ the NotW may have inadvertently brought to the fore a question that has lain dormant for some while: what does give journalists the right to pry into the lives of others or to decide what is/is not wrongdoing, or in the public interest?

In the wake of the current scandal, Peter Wilby claimed that

‘journalism cannot operate according to rigid legalistic codes. Questions of public interest, free speech, privacy and legitimate subterfuge are matters of judgment. Journalism must sometimes operate on the margins of law and morality. Because they don’t have to follow a rulebook, reporters are often more effective than the police in unearthing criminal activity. (The Guardian, 11th July 2011)

but this is a self-image that cannot be left untouched. The journalist’s self-image as a maverick – especially as depicted in popular culture – deserves some critical enquiry. Does this mean that anyone on the Streatham Gazette can legitimately pry into other people’s business if they suspect some wrongdoing? What is the source of their legitimacy? Are they not simply, and merely employees of profit-maximising organisations? Is not what they do no more than what fits into their organisation’s remit (which is usually to make money)? And, in the days of blogs, tweets and Facebook is everyone a journalist? Do we all, suddenly, acquire the legitimacy to intrude into people’s lives and not, to quote Wilby, ‘to follow a rulebook’?

To forget these questions – and we have been here before with respect to the confrontation between journalists and politicians when the latter felt frustrated at not being given the space to make their case – is to avoid finding a way forward to a better and ethical form of journalism whose legitimacy is not based on questionable premises and whose work is truly in ‘the public interest’.

Ralph Negrine is a Professor of Political Communication at the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield

Posted: 11 July 2011