In recent months, a disturbing phenomenon has emerged in sections of the British press. A photograph or video appears on the internet, often posted without the permission of the people who feature in it, and is picked up by a national newspaper. People who didn’t even know they were being filmed, and who were evidently vulnerable for one reason or another, suddenly find themselves all over the press. For the editors concerned, it’s just another day’s front page, but the impact on the individuals concerned can be devastating.
The excuse for lifting this material from Facebook or social networking sites is ‘It’s on the internet’. A former editor of The Guardian, Peter Preston, took this argument to absurd lengths in an Observer column last weekend, when he wrote about UK press coverage of the suicide of the actor Robin Williams. Preston suggested that expecting editors to follow guidelines drawn up by the Samaritans – in part to avoid the risk of copycat attempts – was ‘baying at the moon’. Guidelines ‘bend under pressure’, he argued, saying that the police released details of Williams’s death and websites ‘carried that news around the world’.
This argument is so flimsy that it’s is hard to imagine anyone taking it seriously. Most national newspapers, with the exception of the Express group, have agreed to observe the Editors’ Code of Practice. Clause 5 specifically incorporates Samaritans’ advice on reporting suicide, warning that ‘care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.’
The Code is not always followed by the national press; that is why Hacked off is calling for a new system of self-regulation which is independent and effective, with audit by an independent Recognition Panel. But Preston is now arguing that editors don’t even have to follow the guidelines they have signed up to, simply because unregulated material appears on the internet.
He seems to have forgotten that national newspapers, unlike individuals who post material on Facebook, are commercial organisations. They exist to make profits, and can and should be held to higher standards. The industry boasts that it has signed up to these higher standards and is therfore more trustworthy than bloggers and tweeters. Editors exercise professional judgement every day, rightly ignoring a great deal of what is available on the internet: videos of jihadist atrocities, including beheadings; violent pornography, including rapes; and examples of ‘revenge’ porn, where angry individuals post pictures of ex-partners naked or performing sexual acts. Much of what appears online is sensational, unverified, and certainly not ‘news’ in any normal sense of the word.
Take the notorious ‘Magaluf girl’ incident which appeared on the front page of The Sun and other tabloids at the beginning of July. The paper printed a photograph of an 18-year-old tourist who was alleged to have performed oral sex on a group of men in a Spanish bar, taken from a video which was filmed on a mobile phone and posted on the internet. Just the original post was shared at least 15,000 times. The story appeared days later in The Sun, on the very same day that a former editor of its sister paper, the News of the World, was jailed for phone hacking; to many observers, it looked like a cynical distraction from the disgrace of Andy Coulson. It was never clear why this was a ‘news’ story at all, but friends of the young woman said she was distraught when the picture was published; she was even said to be on ‘suicide watch’. The paper blocked out her eyes but she was quickly identified, named all over the internet and subjected to a torrent of online abuse. At the end of July, The Sun picked up a ‘story’ which had appeared on the Facebook page of a mother from Shropshire. The woman, whom we are not going to name because it might identify her son, had posted a photograph of the boy with a curious mark on his torso. The Sun somehow managed to turn this inconsequential ‘news’ into a front-page lead with a photograph of the boy’s face, bare chest and a tendentious headline: ‘Boy, 4, has mark of devil’. The paper even gave details of the child’s medical history – he has a rare disease – and named him and his primary school. It was clear that the boy’s parents had cooperated with The Sun, although the paper declined to say whether they had been paid which would certainly be a breach of the Editors Code.
Singling out an infant in this way and describing him in giant font as “Boyelzebub” could obviously lead to bullying. But far from showing any concern for the boy, The Sun returned to the piece the next day, mentioning him in a follow-up ‘story’ about a ‘psychic’ woman who claimed to have similar marks. When challenged, the paper responded that it was ‘light-hearted’ treatment of a subject which the boy’s parents had raised on social media, ignoring the fact that it involved apparent breaches of the Editors’ Code. As critics pointed out, the mark on the boy’s body needed investigation, not exposure in a national newspaper.
The ‘Magaluf girl’ incident involved an even worse lapse of editorial judgement. The young woman in question had been drinking, had not consented to being filmed and appeared to have been tricked into risky behaviour; the ‘reward’ she was offered – a free holiday – turned out to be the name of a cocktail. The event has disturbing parallels with ‘revenge’ porn, except that on this occasion the culprit was a national newspaper which paraded a teenager as entertainment for millions of readers.
The phone hacking scandal was about cheap, lazy journalism. Some reporters were encouraged or instructed to listen to voicemails as an alternative to the hard work of going out, getting stories and persuading interviewees to talk. Now they can’t hack phones any more, the online world has become another source of cheap, dubiously sourced stories. Trawling the internet for ‘news’ is a new front in the assault on journalistic ethics, creating further breaches of privacy and exposing vulnerable individuals to bullying and misogyny. In the post-hacking world, the case for an effective system of press regulation has never been more urgent.