Wednesday 6 July 2011

News of the World

The News of the World prides itself on its investigations. Stories such as its fake sheikh exclusives and the match-fixing allegations against the Pakistan cricket team have shown it can pack a punch in exposing hypocrisy and wrongdoing.

So isn't it all a bit ludicrous that people are being asked to buy the line that successive editors of the newspaper did not know how crucial details for a fistful of stories were being obtained? As a journalist, you get used to asking the question or being asked the question: "How did we get that?"

Rightly so, because it's the job of journalists to check and double check and triple check the facts before they get into print. A reporter will be asked by the news editor how they can stand up their story. The news editor will be asked by the editor. The story will be debated at conference. Deputy editors will cough discreetly. The chief sub-editor will raise an eyebrow over anything that looks out of line. The sub-editor will query the copy when they put it on the page. Proofreaders - usually other sub-editors and, with sensitive stories, all the way up to the editor - will pore over every line. That's how it works.

More than that, each of the people involved in this process is a journalist. And journalists have eager, quizzical minds. They want to know how things can be shown to be true. They want to know how facts were unearthed. They want to know that the story is the real thing.

When the phone hacking story was contained to celebrity tittle tattle, there was public frowning but no real traction on the tale. The revelations about Milly Dowler's phone allegedly being hacked and messages being deleted because the mailbox was full so that more stories could be obtained from further messages have changed that. This was no tittle tattle story. This was a missing girl, horrifyingly already a murdered girl, and activity on her phone gave false hope to family members who thought it might indicate Milly might still be alive. Further to that, today sees stories about family members of the Soham victims and the July 7 bombing victims having their phones hacked.

We are being asked to believe that, time after time, the staff of the News of the World blithely waved these stories by, without ever asking: "How did we get that?". More than that, we are being asked to believe that a newspaper with the investigative reputation of the News of the World hasn't been able to unearth any sign of wrongdoing once its eye has turned to its own procedures and staff members.

The sudden handing over of "new evidence" by the News of the World in the wake of the new revelations looks suspiciously like the company pushing former editor Andy Coulson into the line of fire to distract from staff closer to home. Now that the feeding frenzy has started on this story, that's not likely to be anywhere near enough. Nor should it be.

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