A couple of years ago I worked for the Mirror Group in London, on the group’s three national red-top tabloids: The Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People. I worked in the commercial side of things and had barely any interaction with the editorial staff, except for the staff gym changing room (more on that shortly). Some scattered recollections on the atmosphere in this market:
- In the commercial team we used to spend a large slice of our day simply monitoring what The Sun, NOTW and Daily Star was up to. Our performance vs the News International titles was literally our most important KPI – every morning I’d get in early to literally count how many ads News Int got compared to the Mirror.
- The Sun’s cover price went from 35p to 30p, then down to 20p in London, then 20p all over the country. The Daily Star went to 15p. There was serious talk that one of the papers would go all the way and just give away copies for free. If you can think of another consumer goods category that slashes price to that degree in order to compete I’d love to hear about it.
- When I was in the staff gym changing room with one of the senior reporters I witnessed him swearing loudly on his mobile phone because he’d just been scooped on a story by News International. I now understand how this may have occurred.
- Later, when talking with the same reporter I asked him whether or not he’d seen any phone hacking, of the type that was beginning to make the news back then, going on at the Mirror. He actually did the ‘tap side of nose’ gesture.
In recent days there’s been lots of commentary in Australia asking if phone hacking could happen here. Senator Bob Brown couldn’t resist, absurdly, calling for a government inquiry into News Limited in Australia, despite there being no credible suggestion that such a thing has ever taken place. Margaret Simons of Crikey has waged a downright baffling campaign to have News Limited in Australia publicly reveal their Professional Code of Conduct, presumably to check it doesn’t enforce mandatory phone hacking behaviour. ABC’s 7:30 ran a piece asking ‘could it happen here?’, centering on News Corp and concluding that Australia has all the vital ingredients: journalists and telephones. Leslie Cannold has written a piece on News Corp, arguing that:
The abuse of media power that lies at the heart of the phone hacking scandal can be seen in News Corp media in other parts of the world, including Murdoch’s Australian tabloids and the national broadsheet, The Australian.
The narrative that is emerging is that this scandal is all about the unchecked influence of one company – News Corp – and it’s rotten culture. Links are drawn between News Int’s appalling behaviour in London, to News Ltd’s recent sketchy track record in Australia, to Fox News’ alternate reality in the USA. And given the character of those – quite separate – organisations, it’s an appealing story. I’ve realised there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching Rupert Murdoch grimace as he’s doorstepped by proper journos from the Guardian, Independent, Channel 4 and BBC. Long may it continue.
But this isn’t just a story about News International, any more than the MP expenses scandal was about only Labour, or only the Tories. Literally every other UK tabloid, and quite a few of the broadsheets, was involved in the practice. Even the Guardian Media Group, whose brilliant journalist Nick Davies single-handedly drove the phone-hacking story, recorded 103 confirmed instances of trafficking in unlawful confidential information through its Sunday paper, the Observer. According to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office report, the company I worked for recorded 1,676 instances – 6.5 times as many as News International.
Almost every newspaper in the UK, tabloid and broadsheet, progressive and conservative, big and small, has been involved in phone hacking, with some – such as the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail – doing so to an apparently much greater degree than the News of the World. That other papers have largely avoided scrutiny to date is incredible luck, but it is also surely just a matter of time until that luck runs out. Quite why the focus to date has been centered on Murdoch alone is something that hasn’t been adequately explained. There’s a distinct possibility that many of the stories we’re reading on the NotW have actually been leaked by factions (Brooks, Coulson, Myler) within News Int itself, in order to deflect attention from their own roles, given the real risk they could be sent to prison.
With the exception of The Independent and the Daily Telegraph, all are implicated. The Daily Mail, for instance, recorded 952 separate instances of obtaining unlawful information, more than 4x as many as the NotW. The Mail is widely recognised as the most politically influential newspaper in the UK, with an unmatched level of political access, and editor Paul Dacre is the highest paid person on Fleet Street. When actor and comedian Steve Coogan asked why the Daily Mail had not figured prominently in the hacking scandal coverage, the newspaper immediately ran this astonishing hatchet job on him. Draw your own conclusions.
The emerging narrative in Australia about ‘toxic’ News Corp straddling the market is erroneous. The fact is, phone hacking did not emerge because of the concentration of media ownership under Murdoch – although that clearly played a central role in how long it took for police and government to seriously pursue the matter. The UK newspaper market is actually very diverse in its ownership, and highly competitive. News International is just one of many robust, powerful newspaper owners, and Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail) and Mirror Group both lay claim to being the biggest newspaper publishers in the UK due to their dominance of local press. In broadcasting Murdoch’s BSkyB is utterly dwarfed in terms of reach and influence by both ITV and the BBC.
The real truth is the phone hacking story is not about the market power of News Corp, but in a strange way is actually about its lack of power in the highly competitive UK national newspaper market, which I described above. The intense competition between The Sun, Mirror, Star, Mail and Express for essentially the same group of readers is what drove these journalists to try and scoop each other by any means necessary. This is the key difference with the Australian situation. Our tabloids like the Herald Sun are virtual monopolies, within their respective segments and geographies.
The Hun doesn’t need to scrap and fight for stories in this way, since it has no real competition – its readers are hardly going to start buying The Age, and vice versa. Have a look at the brilliant site Flashboard Wars if you need a graphic illustration of how divergent those two brands are: one covers asylum seekers and climate change, the other covers footy and Masterchef. And in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart, there isn’t even a Fairfax alternative to News Ltd’s tabloids.
This erroneous focus on News Corp has given News Ltd’s Australian opponents a golden opportunity to sling mud, which they have done with relish. A clearly annoyed News Ltd CEO John Hartigan has made a statement to all News Ltd staff, announcing the company will audit recent editorial expenditure for any malpractice, and even backed down on the frankly baffling demand to publish News Ltd’s staff Code of Conduct publicly (as if that proves anything – no doubt the NotW has a robust Code of Conduct also).
But, while a few instances may well be unearthed, the prospect of finding systematic lawbreaking in Australia is remote. This is true because of, not in spite of, News Ltd’s market power in Australia. News Ltd journalists, or those of Fairfax, just do not need to resort to this. They are too comfortable and too sluggish to go to those lengths. Which is a story in itself.