The News of the World scandal just keeps getting bigger, dirtier and more depressing but how did it get to the point where it felt OK to hack into the phone calls of murdered children and traumatised families such as the Dowler’s and others (possibly many more others than we currently know about)?
The media is a very competitive business. You are generally only as good as your last programme or your last newspaper article. Your producer or editor is constantly breathing down your neck for a big story, a great feature, information that your media competitors don’t have. You should not underestimate the affect this pressure has on the average human being. It’s fairly basic psychology. A young reporter or television producer is conscious that his or her job is always vulnerable. There are plenty of bright people gagging to take over and if you don’t perform you’ll find your contract won’t be extended or you won’t get that great reference that will gain you entry to the next contract.
An editor doesn’t necessarily demand an employee break ethical and legal boundaries to get a story but all too often they will turn a blind eye if they are getting good results. More likely they don’t even ask where certain information has come from. They want the headline; they want the circulation figures or the ratings to rise. They are also under intense pressure from above. All the way up to the shareholders. The truth is the media is a business dictated to by the demands of the money-men. Higher figures = high profits. Simple.
So that reporter or producer lies awake at night trying to work out how to deliver the increasingly impossible – a scoop of major proportions. Maybe they discuss it with their mates. Maybe someone says, ‘don’t you know how easy it is to get inside information?’. Maybe someone knows how to do it and offers to help. Maybe that reporter or his/her line manager takes up the offer to see what it can achieve. Maybe they say to themselves ‘just this once’. Maybe it got great results, a strong lead or exclusive information. A pat on the back from the boss, smiles all around, extra booze at the office party. What a buzz that would give you, right? You have single-handedly improved the figures, made everyone at work smile and the boss look fondly upon you. With positive feedback like that how are you going to resist trying the same technique again?
Maybe the buzz dies down, the pressure returns, the boss had forgotten your scoop. The media has a very short memory. Remember you are only as good as your last story and your last story has disappeared into the mists of time. Today news is wrapping tomorrow’s fish and chips. So what are you going to do? Use that private detective who was so helpful last time. Didn’t hurt last time. No harm in trying it again.
What about your conscience, the ethical considerations? Well let’s assume the person or people responsible had reservations in the first place. A psychologist may refer to cognitive dissonance. Quite simply if you do something bad you will experience a conflict in your mind. “I am good. I did this. This is bad”. Can’t be both. So the mind works to reduce the conflict. If you carrying on do the bad thing, your mind starts to justify it. And once you’ve done it a few times, then your mind forgets its reservations. It’s become all part of the job.
So who’s to blame? The reporter, producer or department head for trying to hang on to their job or impress the boss? The boss for putting the team under such pressure to deliver? The chief executive for failing to understand where such pressure may lead? The shareholders for insisting on a profit?
Maybe you are a shareholder of a media conglomerate. Maybe you should take some responsibility too!
In short being a manager of a team in the media requires real strength of character, a sound moral backbone, the patience to understand what your team is doing and how, the confidence to resist the kind of pressure that could leads to mistakes. Mistakes that can and do and have ruined and even lost lives. Think twice before uttering those immortal words, “I don’t care how you do it, just do it!”
Nobody should feel that breaking the law and messing with other peoples’ lives is the price to pay for a job in the media. It’s just not worth it. Your integrity, your sense of self-worth is important. Hang onto it whatever the cost.