Tina Stowell Associates

Newspapers, hacking & reputation: what do they have to lose?

July 12th, 2011 | Posted in Uncategorized

I’m surprised that no-one has highlighted the stark contrast of the newspaper industry’s [lack of] response to phone-hacking with the broadcasting industry’s comprehensive response to being caught red-handed in 2007 fleecing viewers with phone-voting and tricking them with dodgy competitions and fake programming of one kind or another.

The television scandal was massive; there were questions of illegality linked to some of the phone-vote rigging and pricing; and even HM The Queen had a walk on (off) part.  Public trust in television nose-dived when all this came out and they needed to act fast to avoid losing it for good.

The thing that’s different between the print and broadcast media’s separate catastrophes is public trust in and opinion of tabloid newspapers has been low for years and they’ve survived without it.  So the question we have to ask is: what motivation is there for newspapers to get their house in order?

In its editorial last Wednesday The Times said: “There is no doubt but that journalists are now in their version of the MPs’ expenses scandal.”. I certainly agree in this sense: like the MPs’ expenses scandal, this is a ‘gotcha’ moment.  In other words, nothing that has come out about phone-hacking has surprised people because they’ve long suspected that journalists go to any lengths to get a good story.  So like MPs and their expenses, the public’s view isn’t changed by these distasteful and disturbing revelations, their existing low opinion is cemented.

But what did change last week, and made these revelations terminally damaging for the NotW (and potentially damaging for other newspapers who are found to have done the same) is that we now know it wasn’t just snooping on the rich, famous and powerful who might be ‘up to no good’, it was – metaphorically speaking – snooping on its own readers.

Although I’ve never seen any evidence to support this, intuitively I feel that people have different expectations of newspapers than they do of broadcasters.  TV and radio journalists and presenters are there to tell us how it is (we can see or hear it so it must be true); newspaper journalists are there as a check on power.

So instead of the question TV execs asked themselves: “how do we restore trust?”; the question for the newspaper industry to reflect on is: “do people  still think we’re on their side?”.  (Indeed, this is an issue for the Police and politicians too, as the Prime Minister said very clearly in his press conference on Friday.)

What I’d like to see is some research on whom or which institution people now think is ‘on their side’.  If that’s nose-dived for newspapers, maybe it will be the motivation the industry needs to get its house in order.