The News of the World and corruption

The issues raised by the exposure of phone hacking on the News of the World should not be seen as of purely parochial interest, of relevance only to the UK.

For it’s more or less received wisdom within the anti-corruption movement that, alongside an independent judiciary, the media plays a key role – perhaps even the key role – in exposing and combating malfeasance and wrongdoing by political leaders.

In the words of the former head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, ‘[a] free Press is at the absolute core of equitable development because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.’

Anti-corruption agencies and NGOs regularly highlight the importance of the media in fighting corruption: Transparency International’s Source Book stresses how the media acts as a crucial ‘integrity pillar’; the United Nations Centre for International Crime Prevention’s Anti-Corruption Toolkit lists the role of an investigative media as one of its core tools; and the Journalists, Journalism and the World blog recently emphasised how ‘Fighting corruption needs free media’.

And, of course, there is much truth in this. We are all familiar with the almost iconic status accorded Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their exposure of the Watergate scandal; every bit as impressive, given the circumstances in which they operate, are those journalists who risk (and all too often give) their lives in their efforts to expose corruption in quasi- and non-democratic states. The assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who reported on the abuses she believed were taking place in Putin’s Russia, was sadly just one of all too many examples. As shown by Reporters Without Borders, the grim reality is that over 300 journalists have been killed doing their job since 2007, and many more imprisoned – often because of their efforts to expose corruption.

No one can seriously deny the central importance of the media in the struggle against corruption. However, what has received far less attention is the question of corruption in, of, and by the media. There is an element of what might be seen as western condescension in the prescriptive manner that the role of a free media is promoted as a key part of fighting corruption in the developing world. Yet, what the shocking revelations about phone hacking and the allegations of paying police for information by reporters working for the News of the World indicate is that a ‘free press’ is by no means enough. We have a free press in the UK, perhaps one of the freest in the world. Freedom of the press alone, however, does not provide sufficient safeguards against the risk of corruption – especially if that corruption involves those working in the press.

It was Thomas Jefferson who remarked that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. But that vigilance needs to extend to the press itself: freedom needs to exist alongside responsibility, which ultimately can only be ensured through the existence of an effective regulatory framework, as well as the guarantee of genuine competition. Greater concentration of media ownership should be seen as a very real potential threat to integrity.

Paul M. Heywood

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