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How the media told the phone hacking story, Part 2 – Judith Townend

News International’s PR team must be thrilled that the super injunction has pushed phone hacking out of the national headlines.  More than one media commentator has suggested that the newspapers – and not just Murdoch’s – are happy to divert attention away from that particular scandal.

In part one, I examined the number of newspaper stories about phone hacking at the News of the World, and looked at the varying coverage in different titles from 2006-11. The Guardian and Observer had given over the most column inches to the affair, unsurprisingly; the tabloids the least.

In this post, I’m looking at the type of stories they covered over the period. For this purpose, the Journalisted database is very handy, as it allows me to search by publication, title and date.

In July 2009, 163 stories were reported in the 21 digital news sources monitored by Journalisted. The Guardian started it off with its story that “Murdoch papers paid £1m to gag phone-hacking victims”, followed by 87 more online articles by the end of the month.

I tracked some of that early coverage here and identified the only place you could find mention of phone hacking on the Sun’s website, when the story first broke – in a readers’ forum. Professor Roy Greenslade did something similar here.

The scandal has had its ups and downs. There have been times when the Guardian was the sole paper reporting on particular developments, and other periods when there was plenty of alternative newspaper coverage. Andy Coulson made headlines with his resignation as the Prime Minister’s media adviser: 103 stories were recorded by Journalisted at that time (between 21-23 January 2011).

The New York Times expose gave the affair a fresh boost too, in September 2010, after several British newspapers failed to highlight the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee’s condemnation of News International’s “collective amnesia” seven months before.

One of the less well-covered incidents concerned phone hacking related libel actions brought by media lawyer Mark Lewis: one against the Press Complaints Commission, now settled in his favour; and one against the Metropolitan Police, which is still ongoing. Few mainstream publications have covered Lewis’ rebuttal of comments made by the PCC’s chair, Baroness Buscombe, at the Society of Editors’ conference in 2009, and the subsequent libel cases.

Who can say why certain newspapers have given phone hacking so much attention and others far less? Private Eye has had a go at answering that. In its latest issue, amid all the super injunction innuendo, it speculates that it’s “little wonder the Mirror papers have been less than enthusiastic about covering the hacking scandal in recent weeks.”

Some have claimed the story is simply not newsworthy. The Guardian’s reporting skills came under attack in the phone hacking fall-out. News International accused the Guardian of “selective and misleading journalism” when denying allegations in 2009.

The Press Complaints Commission, which received strong criticism for its 2009 report into phone hacking, questioned the Guardian’s news sense, stating:

[H]aving reviewed the matter, the commission could not help but conclude that the Guardian’s stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given.”

News International used the bad journalism line in face of the New York Times’ phone hacking investigation too. Its response to the American newspaper’s reporters included this:

“In conclusion, it seems from your letter (unless there is something material you have not referred to or disclosed) that there is no new evidence to corroborate what is claimed and that the proposed story will amount simply to a re-hash of material that has been very thoroughly covered in sections of the British media over the past half decade, with some added speculation and unsubstantiated rumour.

And an accusation about commercial rivalry:

What clearer conflict of interest is there than devoting such enormous resources over five months to investigating one of a rival group’s newspapers and then seeking to publish unsubstantiated claims about that newspaper?

Some people are still worried that the Metropolitan Police’s role in all this hasn’t received enough attention. The blogger and lawyer David Allen Green, for example, reignited Twitter attention on the debate by using the tag ‘#metgate‘.

Green commented in 2009:

In my view, an independent inquiry is required into the relationship between the Metropolitan Police and News International. This inquiry should be open and fair to all those involved, and it can be either a judicial inquiry or by a parliamentary committee.

Daniel Simpson, a former correspondent for Reuters and occasional media critic, believes the Guardian “undersold” its own stories. He flagged up a leader piece by the Economist, which he says hits the important angles harder. It commented:

“Although it is reprehensible that the methods of some tabloid journalists shaded into criminality, it is not altogether surprising. The way the Metropolitan Police handled the hacking investigation, on the other hand, has been shocking […] The hacking scandal matters because it makes it seem that, in Britain, some people are above the law, and others are content for them to be so. The truth must out.”

Simpson added:

[Guardian journalist] Nick Davies and others have touched on this at times, but it’s [the Met angle] never become the frame through which the story’s told. It shouldn’t be left to George Monbiot to stress, in a blog months later, that “police chiefs in this country are out of control.

“They appear to see their role as protecting corporate power against the people, regardless of what the law says … An editor ought to have whipped up a pithy phrase or two, that said all that in every story they published, ideally right at the top.”

There are still those who say it’s not really a story – former Observer editor Donald Trelford, for example.

But a big phone hacking trial, bolstered by celebrity names, is likely to attract a fair bit of mainstream press attention. Journalists certainly flocked to the case management conference earlier this month and were rewarded with an angle for a celebrity-orientated story.

For consistent commentary and coverage about some of the deeper issues, however, follow the bloggers Brian Cathcart at Index on Censorship, David Allen Green on his own blog and News Statesman and Roy Greenslade at the Guardian.

Thank you to Camilla Schick and Martin Moore from the Media Standards Trust for the Journalisted search advice.

Judith Townend, is a freelance journalist and PhD research student at the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism, City University London. She blogs at and is @jtownend on Twitter.

Photo: Piper Caldwell on Flickr

1 Comment

  1. rob

    It is interesting that the Police will take great pleasure in taking photos and details of those on protest marches and demonstrations yet a direct admittance of breaking the law to a select committee of the House of Commons by Rebekah Brooks is ignored since 2003.

    That and the apparent cosy relationship between NewsCorp and The Met Police tends to further the accusation that the Police are only there to protect the rich and powerful from the aspirations of those trying to live off the scraps falling off the top table.

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