Here’s a cautionary question for those of us who are gung-ho about the possibilities of the online world: where would the UK phone-hacking story be without the Guardian?
Answer: nowhere. The Murdoch political and news-management machine would have been able to get away with it. It was the Guardian that kept the phone-hacking story alive, long after most other journalistic institutions, Parliament, the police and the Press Complaints Commission had given up on it. One of the many reasons Peter Oborne’s Telegraph essay on the affair was so remarkable is that he paid tribute to the Guardian for performing “such a wonderful service to public decency by bringing to light the shattering depravity of Mr Murdoch’s newspaper empire”. For one British newspaper to pay tribute to another in this way is almost unprecedented, but in this case Oborne is right.
The really important point is that there are some things that can only be done by a properly organised and funded news organisation. Investigating a scandal like this requires great skill (of the kind displayed by Nick Davies and his colleagues), plus determination, courage and resources — legal and logistical. These don’t come cheap and have to be funded, somehow. I yield to nobody in my enthusiasm for what Charlie Beckett calls networked journalism, and I’m a great believer in harnessing collective IQ by crowdsourcing and so on, but a scandal like the illegal behaviour of the Digger’s satraps and their accomplices in the Metropolitan Police is unlikely to be exposed just by the Net. Much of the posturing by print media about how important newspapers are for democracy is just cant, because it confuses a format (the printed paper) with function (journalism). What matters — what democracy needs — is great journalism of the kind practised by Nick Davies and his colleagues. And that needs organisations — and business models — that can support it.
(Full disclosure: I write for the Guardian‘s sister paper, the Observer, but am not — and never have been — an employee, and these views are very much my own.)