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IFEX members weigh in on fallout of phone hacking scandal

The cover of the final edition of the
The cover of the final edition of the "News of the World", the U.K. tabloid made to cease publishing on 10 July because of the phone hacking scandal

Last week, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced not one but two inquiries into the phone hacking scandal. While IFEX members Index on Censorship, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI) welcomed the inquiries, they warn that the fallout from the scandal raises wider questions about media ethics, press regulations and the relationship between politicians and journalists.

On 10 July, the Rupert Murdoch-owned U.K. tabloid "News of the World" ceased publication after having been found to have illegally hacked into the voicemail messages of prominent people to get exclusive stories. Reports estimate that about 4,000 mobile phones may have been hacked into, including those of victims of crime and terrorism as well as of families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cameron announced two inquiries: one that will focus on press regulation and ethics, and another that will investigate the phone hacking scandal once the police investigation is over. The second inquiry is to be led by a judge and will examine the relationship between the press and politicians.

And that's a good thing, says Index on Censorship. According to media commentators, no politician with any prospect of power has dared to attack Murdoch's empire. "A much more subtle form of corruption has been at play there for decades," said John Kampfner, chief executive of Index.

"We welcome these inquiries, which should expose the web of illegal practices involving corruption and violation of people's privacy," said Jim Boumelha, IFJ president. "The growing tide of public outrage at these revelations is understandable and trust in journalism cannot survive if they are not stamped out for good."

IFJ says the extent of the scandal is a "terrible indictment of the newspaper's top executives who have been the instigators of a media culture based on greed, in total disregard for professional ethics." IFJ affiliate the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) condemned the decision to close "News of the World", accusing managers of "cynical opportunism" for firing staff to avoid taking responsibility for their decisions.

According to IPI, not only do entire newspapers and staff suffer when journalists are accused of falsifying stories or sources, the fight for press freedom does too. "All too often, governments and others who strive to suppress the media point to shoddy journalism and the need to protect the public as reason to limit media rights," said IPI.

But, cautioned Kampfner, if you "impose further impediments to investigative journalism… the only people who will benefit are those with power who have something to hide." He added, "Hark back to Tony Blair's illusory weapons of mass destruction or the sharp practices of bankers and ask: do we, as a society, know too much about what goes on or too little?"

Phone hacking is only one of a variety of reprehensible methods used by investigative journalists to unearth wrongdoing. What is required, says Index, is accountability and a proper definition of journalism in the public interest.

Quoting media ethics expert Bob Steele, Index's Rohan Jayasekera suggests that news organisations must apply a six point test to decide if the journalist's "ethical duty to reveal important truths" justifies breaking a law. The points include: when the information is of vital public interest, when all other alternatives for getting the information have been examined and exhausted, and when the journalists involved are willing to disclose their methods and reasons for such actions.

While self-regulation is considered one of the best ways to ensure independence, scrutiny and standards, the U.K. media self-regulator, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), has come under fire for being "woefully inadequate" in handling the scandal.

IFJ's report "Case for Reform is Unanswerable" found that the PCC lacked the power, capacity and mandate to carry out proper investigations and was not independent enough from the media industry.

Talk of a successor to the PCC that would weigh competing interests and define what is in the public interest isn't the solution, either, says Index. The courts have often distinguished between what is in the public interest and what merely interest the public, and "should be allowed to exclusively continue to do so… case by case," said Jayasekera.

What's needed is a new focus on standards, transparency and accountability, says Index. "The task facing the inquiry is to help foster a new journalism as a fearless and painstaking challenge to authority, one that makes mistakes, oversteps the mark, irritates and offends, but that is fully accountable for its actions," said Kampfner.

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