Lessons from News International’s infamous phone-hacking scandal

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By Nailoke Mhanda

IT IS solid verity that media plays a critical, socially indispensable role within our societies, without which, we will be left to our own volition of assimilating news however, whenever and wherever. Media novelty is owed to the likes of Gutenberg who, through the invention of the printing press in 1456, made mass communication possible. To date, this sector has spiralled against the backdrop of contemporary ICT (information communication technology), the advent of which availed a wide array of information sources, both credible and regrettably, implausible as well.
In today’s information age, news saturation is rampant and as per Reich et al, “…infinite choices exist for audiences, which makes it increasingly difficult to be unique”. Social media for one, has enabled us to be our own news conduit, which however has its own merits and demerits because news can go viral and a topic trends at a simple click of a button.
Amid the myriad of news sources availed by contemporary ICT, the key question is, to what extent do certain media go in their quest for news in order to remain at the forefront of news media, remain relevant and competitive, maintain the revenue hotspot and continue to lure consumers to buy that particular newspaper or subscribe to that specific news channel?
News International’s scandal opened a Pandora’s box into the crude measures that certain media take in their quest for news content, presumably in the hope of remaining competitive, among other drivers. Competitiveness, fortunately or unfortunately, remains a common denominator among media businesses not only in Britain but equally elsewhere.
News International is alleged to have engaged in questionable, intrusive news-gathering methods in its quest for newsfeeds, which involved phone-hacking (including that of the late Milly Dowler) and bribery. The aftermath is reported to have included police investigations and public inquiries, which in turn saw a number of high-profile resignations both at the media house involved and at associated parties. Ramifications have been both reputational and fiscal in nature, as a result of among others, boycotts by advertisers, which inarguably form part of the critical revenue lifelines of most privately-owned media houses. Furthermore, the scandal led to the closure of News of the World newspaper, which closure, arithmetically speaking, came 32 years short of the paper making it to two centennials of publication and circulation.
With particular reference to Namibia, the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom of the press and other media, is constitutionally guaranteed (Article 21(1)), alongside other fundamental rights such as the right to privacy (Article 13) and human dignity (Article 8(1)). In playing their role vis-à-vis the news consuming public, media are therefore obliged to harmonise their rights with the rights of others as accorded by the Constitution.
Before I delve any deeper into the topic, I pause to ponder the ever wise words of Martin Luther King Jr., “…they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” While King Jr’s words threaded through racial divides, they are radically relevant to the topic under biopsy because the same could be said about media freedom which, fervidly intertwines with the rights and freedoms of others.
Accordingly, no matter the potential of news stories at breaking new ground, the privacy and dignity of the persons involved should remain sacrosanct to the extents permitted by law. We are equally fortunate that we nowadays live in fairly erudite societies, whose cognition, fortunately, is no longer easily influenced nor manipulated. Media should henceforth realize that carrying news pieces obtained illegally or fraught with unfounded fabrications or sensationalism, in no time gives way to grave public critique amidst other costly and repute-crippling consequences.
Lessons that local media could learn from the scandal are that media ethics is an honourable tact to hold but quite costly to discount. Local media should henceforth nurture a culture of responsible journalism because the credibility of news stories can only be maintained if media agents are ethical, discerning and maintain a rights-centric approach in their news gathering and reporting.
As for News International unfortunately, the name Milly Dowler, among others, will go down in its history records as an expense, a seemingly negligible straw which nevertheless broke the camel’s back, and a life-long lesson to many.
In conclusion, privacy and dignity remains men’s most prized possessions which society should continuously and collectively strive to safeguard because men, once stripped of these, is left in the nude and completely dishonoured.

*Nailoke Mhanda writes in her personal capacity.

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