I graduated in 2006 with an MA Psychology (with Honours), and went on to complete an MSc in Publishing with Journalism. Since completing my Masters in 2007, I have been working full time in the Oil & Gas industry. In September 2009, I will be beginning an Accelerated Graduate Entry LLB, with the view to becoming a solicitor on completion.
At present, my main specialised subject is Psychology, but I also have a keen interest in Publishing and Journalism.
Current debates about media intrusion and cheque-book journalism in the tabloid press
IntroductionCurrent debates about media intrusion and cheque-book journalism in the tabloid press
There is a perceived lack of journalistic accountability for the practices of tabloid newspapers (Johansson, S. 2008, p.402). ‘Tabloidisation’ refers to the shift towards ‘popular’ news, with the majority of UK newspaper readers choosing to read tabloids over the more ‘newsworthy’ broadsheets, as recent circulation figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) show.
Tabloid newspapers have long been criticised for their methods of reporting stories, and the journalistic practices in place, which will be further discussed. Two issues will be discussed in more detail – media intrusion and cheque-book journalism – with a view to understanding current journalistic practices and their effects on news information in relation to The Sun newspaper.
Tabloid journalists have been accused of privacy invasion in a bid to access stories that they deem to be in the publics’ interest (Morrison & Svennevig 2007, p.44). The relationship between the journalistic practices and the rights of individuals has been discussed in great depth, largely concluding that there needs to be better definition of the rights for both the media, and for individuals (Morrison & Svennevig 2007, p.45).
‘Cheque-book journalism’ is a controversial method that refers to the presence of financial reward for an individual’s story; an issue that is prevalent in the tabloid press. Negatively, cheque-book journalism as a journalistic practice instills a financial importance on a persons’ potential anguish, or on a person’s life (Goc & Bainbridge 2008, p.99), creating potential problems for individual privacy.
The Sun newspaper will be critiqued to assess the effects and implications of media intrusion and cheque-book journalism.
A Case Study – The Sun Newspaper
Published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, a subsidiary of News Corporation, The Sun newspaper, is a daily tabloid newspaper, regularly outselling its national rivals since it was launched in 1963.
The rationale for choosing The Sun newspaper as a case for analysis, is due to it having the largest net circulation for all the national newspapers; between 23rd February and 29th March 2009, this was 3,068,035 (ABC. 2009). The Sun newspaper has been criticised for providing the public with ‘popular journalism’, including human interest stories, and mainly sport and celebrity features (Johansson, S. 2008, p.402).
As one of the most widely read newspapers in the UK; The Sun newspaper had an estimated readership of 7,872,000 between January and December 2008, the largest figure for all of the daily newspapers (National Readership Survey. 2009).
Tabloids have been criticised for their coverage of largely ‘soft news’ stories, and sensationalised features, mainly focusing on celebrity culture (Uribe, R. 2004, p.387). Both the online and print versions of The Sun newspaper primarily depict such articles or features, whereby the main headlines are celebrity focused or centered on sensational stories; the headline story on Friday 15th May 2009 reads ‘Missing some body Pete?’ in reference to Katie Price and Peter Andre’s recent break up (The Sun Newspaper, 2009, p.1).
It has been argued that there has been a considerable decline of journalistic standards in terms of simplifying news information for the greater mass, ‘dumbing down’ (Ursell, G. 2001, p.175), made easier by the popularity of the tabloid newspaper. Generally, articles featured in The Sun tend to lack depth and information, particularly in relation to stories about political or ‘hard news’ issues (McNair, B. 2008, p.5). This dumbing down can be further attributed to the development of the Internet and online news services (Baker, W. 2009, p.81); whereby articles are made simpler and shorter so that people are able to search through a vast array of information quickly and without complication.
Conversely, there has been some support for the apparent dumbing down of newspapers. It has been suggested that although the so-called ‘redtop newspapers’ such as The Sun portray news information in simpler terms so that they appeal to the mass public, at least news articles are reaching a wider, and subsequently more knowledgeable public (Temple, M. 2006, p.257).
In many Western societies, media channels have largely become deregulated and lack censorship or control by the state (Stanyer &Wring 2004, p.1). There operates a system of self-regulation that the media is duty-bound to adhere to (House of Commons. 2003). It must also be noted that if a system is put in place with strict regulations, this would fundamentally challenge the press as a free and democratic form of expression (Satchwell, B. 2003).
A ‘free press’ is considered to be one that is devoid of censorship and promotes freedom of speech (Baker, W. 2009, p.81). It is important to distinguish that although the press is obliged to report on matters of public safety (both national and international), and criminal or health matters (House of Commons. 2003), there is also the obligation to identify that not all matters are deemed to be in the public interest. The Sun has been criticised in the past for intruding on individuals’ personal lives, unnecessarily and out with what has been deemed in the public interest. For example, the coverage of the 13 year old boy, Alfie Patten, who was thought to have fathered a child with a 15 year old girl. In February of this year, an article reads ‘Baby shambles….I blame the parents’, whereby it goes on to discuss in great detail both children and, quite despicably, how they may have came about to have fallen pregnant (The Sun Online, 2009). Describing the girl, ‘these antics make TV’s Vicky Pollard look like Mother Teresa’, the article goes on to blame both sets of parents, and the home environments that may have resulted in the underage pregnancy. This is a prominent example of the effects of media intrusion, and breach of privacy, particularly of children, which should not be allowed to happen. The effects of this media coverage on their lives, and future lives, could be extremely detrimental.
In essence, principles of media conduct are to be regulated by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). It has been suggested that the Office of Communications (Ofcom) must ensure that the media must work in accordance with the PCC to ensure that people are treated fairly without harassment (House of Commons. 2003). In 2004, The Sun published a story relating to the then Tory MP Boris Johnson’s alleged denial of having an affair (The Sun Online, 2004). Having little relevance to his profession, and the potential hurt caused to his wife, was disregarded by the newspaper. Importance must be placed on the necessity to consider that people suffering loss or grief must be cared for responsibly and without aggravation; particularly if they have conveyed their desire to remain out with the public domain. However, the PCC has been criticised in the past for failing to effectively monitor and act on complaints received in regards to media intrusion in the press (Feintuck & Varney, 2006, p.141).
Support for media intrusion and cheque-book journalism
Media intrusion is determined, in part, by competition between the various forms of media outlet; whether it is online, print or the television (Deacon, D. 2004, p.9). These different forms vie for stories in order to have the exclusive, and therefore drive up readership and sales figures. With the general decline of the print newspaper, this would be advantageous to the print newspaper industry (De Wall, Schonbach & Lauf 2005, p.55). Competition between the various media outlets may result in wider coverage of stories, and potentially a greater wealth of information and consequent debate (Deacon, D. 2004, p.10).
Tabloids newspapers, including The Sun newspaper, have been praised for providing access to a wealth of news information on an intellectual level suited to that of the general public (Ornebring & Jonsson 2004, p.283). In relation to the type of features and news stories that The Sun’s readership seeks, intrusion is key to delivering the types of articles that their audience are interested in. Coverage of Jade Goody’s final months – and indeed, the majority of her life since she first appeared on Big Brother in 2002 – played a major part in The Sun newspaper, with many of the issues featuring an article about her. A search of The Sun Online produces more than 290 articles about Jade in 2009 alone. Every aspect of her life is explored, from her children to her family, her background and her legacy that she has left behind.
For many, this type of constant intrusion into one’s personal life would probably be abhorrent, but Jade herself had commented on her desire to promote herself publicly for as long as she could in a bid to secure a better future for her children (BBC News Online. 2009). It is clear that media intrusion may have a positive effect on the lives of her children (in terms of the money that was made before and after her death for selling stories). Although it could be cautioned that media attention as great as they have seen may prove detrimental in the years to come, resulting in unwanted exposure and media interest.
It must be considered that the press has a right to discover all aspects of a story, ensuring that there is no censorship, resulting in a breach of democracy as well as a right to a free press (Baker, W. 2009, p.81). Additionally, where a person’s privacy is in violation of matters of public safety or national security, then these limited situations allow for media intrusion.
Under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership, there may be a greater emphasis on cutting costs where possible, and not automatically reaching for the cheque-book in order to gain access to a story. It has been discussed that Murdoch is renowned for ensuring money is not wasted unnecessarily (Dunn, M. 2007, p.9).
Arguments against media intrusion and cheque-book journalism
The openness to negotiate for a story clearly portrays the shift from news as an information service, to news as a manufactured product (Goc & Bainbridge 2008, p.99), supporting the shift towards tabloidisation and away from ‘hard news’ (Snoddy, 1993, p.25). The press has been critiqued for being encouraged by sales figures, rather than supplying the public with accurate or informative news (Shear & Green 2008, p.1).
The media – and more specifically, tabloid newspapers – have been condemned for privacy invasion, particularly in relation to the individual rights to privacy of those in the public eye. An article published on 5th May 2009 by The Sun Online, Parker & Ashford (2009) discuss an incident involving Sir Alex Ferguson’s grandchildren. The article discusses in great detail the accident involving members of his family, where the two children involved were hospitalised. This is completely irrelevant with regard to Sir Alex’s career and perhaps indicative of a step too far for ‘investigative’ journalism?
The PCC frequently receives complaints due to invasion of privacy by the media. For example, a case was raised by Ashley Cole against The Sun and also the Daily Mirror newspapers in July 2008, claiming an invasion of privacy was breached when it was reported that he had been having an affair (Shear & Green 2008, p.1). While this may or may not have been the case, this type of story is largely publicized by the tabloid press, again raising the question, is this really in the public’s interest? It is ultimately the journalists’ duty to bear in mind that an invasive inquiry into a person’s life for the sake of the following days’ lead story, should not sacrifice the person (Linklater, M. 2008, p.62).
In 1998, the Human Rights Act outlined the necessary requirements of public bodies to act according to the guidelines set out by the European Convention on Human Rights. The Act set the foundations for the right to privacy, and the importance of protecting a person’s private life (BBC News Online. 2008). For example, in 2006, The Sun newspaper featured an article regarding the salaries of GP’s in the NHS; whereby the headline read ‘Wads up doc’ (Day, M. 2007, p.2). In essence, whose right is it to publish what a person’s salary is? It was defended that it was in the public interest to know how much the NHS were paying on salaries, but this itself could be deemed to be a breach of the right to privacy. It was also noted that it was ideal to put a limit on how much an NHS GP should earn, but this is not reflective of other industries whereby people are annually rewarded pay increases or bonuses, why should it be any different in the medical profession?
Section 12 of the Act also defends the rights to freedom of expression (Human Rights Act 1998, OPSI), perhaps providing a defensive argument for the rights of the media to debate, and therefore publish, whatever they deem to be in the publics’ interest. It is vitally important, in a democratic society, that we are allowed freedom of expression, but this must be valued against the appreciation that a person is entitled to a private life (House of Commons. 2003). It is also considered that, even though a public figure may incite press attention, this does not disregard their future entitlement to privacy on private matters (House of Commons. 2003).
Privacy is deemed to be a human right, as set out by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (European Court of Human Rights. 2003), whereby people are allowed the freedom to conduct their private lives how they see fit, without the threat of media exposure. In 2005, a Strasbourg court ruled in favour of Princess Caroline von Hannover of Monaco against a newspaper that was in possession of private photographs taken of her children, despite the fact that they were taken in a public place (Shear & Green 2008, p.1). This was an important factor is support of Article 8, outlining the importance of allowing public figures (particularly those with royal duties) to have privacy in relation to non-official duties.
There is a fine line between one person’s freedom to express themselves, and the consequent effect on another person’s privacy (House of Commons. 2003). What may be deemed as the freedom of expression for one person may adversely affect the life of another person. This issue must be dealt with responsibly by the media platform involved, and all cases taken into account when reporting such matters. An example of an infringement on a person’s life to the detriment of another’s, is evident in The Sun’s coverage of the two boys that murdered toddler James Bulger. The Sun printed a critical article about one of the boys’ mothers; Ann-Marie Thompson, mother of Bobby Thompson. She was portrayed as a lower class woman that had done nothing in her power to stop her child from murdering another child, placing blame on those around her, including her son’s teachers and the authorities (Franklin & Petley 1996, p.144).
Financially rewarding a person for telling their account of a situation may lead to falsification of reality; for the everyday person, being at the centre of a national news story may compel that person to elaborate on the facts, rather than give an accurate description of the events (Goc & Bainbridge 2008, p.100). A person may feel coerced into embellishing the details of a story in an attempt to make it more newsworthy, due to a responsibility to those that have paid them for their story (Goc & Bainbridge 2008, p.100).
Additionally, for the party that loses the rights to an exclusive story, a negative angle may therefore be spun on the consequent story, perhaps leading to misinformation or misinterpretation of the facts; primarily due to a feeling of disappointment of having missed out on a profitable story (Goc & Bainbridge 2008, p.100).
In a complaint made to the PCC in February 2009, it was proposed that The Sun newspaper had offered payment to he parents of Alfie Patten in an effort to report their story (PCC. 2009). At the time of writing, the case has not been resolved, but this is a clear example of the despicable way in which some reporters may pursue a story. Clause 6 of the Editors’ Code of Practice states that newspapers are only able to provide financial incentive if it is in the child’s interest (PCC. 2009), not simply if it is to intrude into the lives of a potentially vulnerable individual. However, in an article printed by the Daily Mail in February 2009, it was reported that Alfie’s parents had displayed their desire to promote their son as much as possible in an attempt to ‘make a packet’ and ‘make as much money as I can’ from selling their son’s story (The Daily Mail Online, 2009). This is a clear example of how cheque-book journalism can have a damaging effect on a child’s right to privacy, preying on his parents desire – or perhaps need – to make money out of shamelessly promoting their own child.
The UK charity, MediaWise Trust, aims to provide advice and information on media ethics. Strongly opposed to cheque-book journalism, MediaWise (2008) states “if information is genuinely in the public interest, it should have no price tag”.
The Code of Conduct detailed by the PCC has been erected to ensure that the press acts in accordance with a predefined set of rules to promote ethical reporting. The Code specifically condemns the use of financial recompense to public officials, law enforcement, and mediators to gain access to information about individuals, without their consent (House of Commons. 2003).
Although there may be times when the press should be entitled to uncover all aspects of a story, or the individuals involved, it is vital that the individual rights of a person’s privacy are respected. Certain circumstances such as matters of national security, or those deemed to be in the public interest, should be treated with caution and reported using ethical journalistic practices.
The debate regarding media intrusion and the use of cheque-book measures to gain access to a story will long remain, until legal measures are set in place to either accept or dispel these journalistic practices.
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