Lessons from scandal that won’t go away

Murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked by unscrupulous journalists
Murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked by unscrupulous journalists

by Neil Everton, London, England

For anyone in the media business, this is a momentous time to be in the UK.

The fall-out from the phone-hacking scandal surrounding the News of the World newspaper has escalated all week.

Yesterday the paper’s Australian owner Rupert Murdoch closed the 168 year-old title, with the loss of 200 jobs.

This is a scandal that reaches to the top levels of government in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron used to employ as his communications advisor former NoW news editor Andy Coulson.

It was on Coulson’s watch at the NoW that some of the worse excesses of the phone-hacking happened: journalists and their private detectives hacked into (and actually deleted) messages on the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Coulson was today arrested by police.

That’s not Cameron’s only connection to the scandal. Coulson’s boss at the paper, Rebekah Brooks, is a friend of the Prime Minister. She’s a neighbour, and they have ridden and dined together. Brooks has so far defied calls for her resignation.

If that’s not enough, Cameron’s government is being asked to give the green light to plans by Murdoch to take a controlling interest in broadcaster BSkyB.

Today Prime Minister Cameron was struggling to protect his credibility.

Cameron said politicians had been too ‘cosy’ with journalists. And had turned a blind eye to bad practices in journalism.

But he said he couldn’t remember being warned about the risks of hiring Coulson as his communications director. He described Coulson as a friend, and said Coulson had been very effective with the Cameron team.

The lesson from all of this?

Most journalists are honest, hard-working folk who try to do a good job. But they are not on your side. Whether you are the interviewer or the interviewee, keep the relationship professional. There is no such thing as ‘off-the-record’.

‘Cosy’ relationships tend to end in tears.

And turning a blind eye to unethical behaviour – wherever it happens – inevitably comes with a price.

Here in the UK a lot of people will be paying a lot more before this scandal goes away.

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