x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

News of the World readies to pay the piper for a dying song

Late last week, the News of the World, the best-selling Sunday newspaper in Britain, made an unreserved apology to a group of public figures whose mobile phones had been illegally accessed.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Late last week, the News of the World, the best-selling Sunday newspaper in Britain, made an unreserved apology to a group of public figures whose mobile phones had been illegally accessed or "hacked" over a two-year period beginning in 2004.

In a short statement, News International, the paper's parent company, recapped the details of what is now a long-running scandal: that a former member of its staff (Clive Goodman) and a private investigator (Glenn Mulcaire) had, in 2007, been imprisoned for phone hacking and that since that time "a number of individuals have brought breach of privacy claims against the News of the World." The newspaper also apologised to "relevant individuals" and admitted liability in a number of legal cases that are currently outstanding.

News International has, according to some reports, set aside up to £20 million to settle these grievances. By any measure, it is a staggering battle fund, large enough to move a rival paper to splash the mischievous headline "A Wapping Payout!" over its front page last weekend, alongside photographs of six "relevant individuals" including the actress Sienna Miller and Tessa Jowell, a senior politician in the last Labour government. But if News International's wish had been to swiftly close the phone hacking chapter by opening up the corporate cheque book, few believe it will actually be granted. The story - with its near perfect mix of celebrity, politics, misdemeanours and cash - is just too good to disappear that quickly.

There is, however, an odd double-standard operating somewhere in the middle of all of this. While the paper has been widely condemned for having previously used extreme tactics in pursuit of its next exclusive, many tabloid newspaper readers also believe that public figures are somehow "fair game" for the kind of scrutiny that eventually and recklessly leads to phone hacking.

How many of those same readers would have cared though if Mulcaire and Goodman had delivered their exclusives without getting caught? Very few, I suspect. And what if the goalposts were moved so that same "fair game" rule was applied to those who consume the news and not just the celebrities?

The subject of "fair game" is high on Hank Gilman's agenda in You Can't Fire Everyone, a recently published business book which is reviewed in brief this week. Gilman, who is the deputy managing editor of Fortune business magazine, devotes several pages of a generally entertaining book to the unstoppable rise of social media, in which he asserts "there are a lot of people doing really stupid things on Facebook", while also describing Twitter as "a waste of time".

His take on these sites ("if someone decided to publish what you just said, how would it look?") seems dreadfully old-fashioned, even if it is not altogether without its merits. It does, however, touch on modern society's current inability to distinguish between someone's digital persona and their actual personality, as several recent high-profile casualties of their own Twitter feeds will no doubt testify. To err is human, unless it's an error played out in less than 140 characters.

Social media's great achievement has been to move our private thoughts into the public domain and fashion them into a form of entertainment. Inevitably this shift brings risks too. Chief among those are the digital footprints each of us makes and, indeed, what impressions those marks make on others.

In future, phone hacking may seem as archaic a method of information-gathering as, say, getting film developed at your local chemist, particularly when many of us are content to broadcast the details of our lives from all manner of digital platforms. For now, the hope (for public figures at least), must be that the financial penalty News International has now placed itself under has already killed this dark art.