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Newspapers - Who's At Fault?

This morning has seen some rambling debates (some might say 'arguments') on Twitter, regarding the current phone-hacking maelstrom. After filling up my poor friends' timelines, it seemed right to move here, to where I can try and explain my views in a few more than 140 characters.

My basic contention is that ultimately, "The Public" must bear some responsibility for the dubious practices of certain news organisations. I've been robsustly taken to task on this, on the basis that papers "should" act ethically and it's unreasonable to expect the public to hold them to account(1).

The facts are fairly simple.

Newpaper organisations exist to sell papers. People choose which paper to buy largely on the stories they can read, and the political slanting of those stories. Almost nobody chooses to buy the Daily Telegraph purely for the Matt cartoon (although, on occasion, I have). Therefore, to sell papers, news organisations have to produce stories that lots of people want to read.

Newspapers won't waste money on stories that don't sell. This is the logical corollary to the previous point. If the public woke up one morning and suddenly nobody cared who was sleeping with Katie Price, newspapers would pretty quickly stop paying for such information. Either that, or they'd go bankrupt. This is basic free market economics.

People don't care how those stories are obtained. This is clearly evident despite the current maelstrom. Nobody complained about politicians secrets were exposed, so it appears that the act of invading privacy for the purposes of entertainment is acceptable. Very few people, other than those impacted, really cared when it emerged that those secrets were exposed unlawfully, so it appears that committing unlawful acts for the purposes of entertainment is equally acceptable.

If people genuinely felt that getting stories through unlawful means was unacceptable, then where was the howling outrage, blood-baying and general lynchmobbery when it first transpired that newspapers were breaking the law? Nowhere to be found, because those who bought the papers just wanted the juicy stories, and the rest of us either didn't care because the victims probably deserved it or were just utterly unsurprised by it all(2). And while, if asked outright, the public would generally say they didn't want papers breaking the law on their account, there's a wilful determination to avoid thinking too deeply about it. It's the worst kind of "don't ask, don't tell".

Phew. So, the public - the market for newspapers - have tacitly accepted that it's ok to break the law if it's an interesting story. And the newspapers have responded to the market. Were they wrong to break the law? Of course they were. Are they responsible for their own actions? Certainly. But, and this is the critical part, the market - the public - is partially responsible too.

This in no way takes away from the original crime. The fact that someone gets arrested for handling stolen goods doesn't reduce the sentence for the original burglar. Stealing remains a crime. But the reason that handling stolen goods is also a crime is the same - because by doing so, you create a market that drives the original crime. Cut off the market - by refusing to buy that (potentially) stolen phone or that (potentially) illegally obtained story - and you remove the impetus to commit the crime.

That the papers have done wrong is not in doubt, and the public isn't in any sense legally culpable for the actions of those papers. But they did ultimately create the conditions that led to it and to seek to shirk that responsibility is, at best, naive about how the real world works.


The opposing idea - that newspapers should always do the right thing, is seductively utopian. Yes, it would be great if they held themselves to a high standard and resisted chasing readers, and ultimately money, with more questionable methods. It would also, however, be nice if we didn't need traffic wardens because everyone just parked legally.

And I would also like a pony.


(1) apologies if this misrepresents your position; it's how I read it. Feel free to correct me :)

(2) you'll never guess which camp my cynical arse happens to sit.

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