The United Kingdom has been rocked in the last week with news of a major phone-hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. The newspaper allegedly attempted to hack the phones of members of the British public, politicians, members of the Royal family, and 9/11 victims.
As Donnacha DeLong wrote in The Guardian last week, the declining editorial standards (which now include, in all likelihood, illegal activity) of the News of the World have tracked alongside a concurrent attack on workers’ rights at the company. News of the World staff, including journalists, were once represented by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), who were forced out 25 years ago thanks to a concerted effort by the paper’s management. Murdoch’s media empire has been one of the United Kingdom’s least worker-friendly companies, and his actions are widely believed to have broken the newspaper unions during the 1980s. (For more on Murdoch’s unionbusting actions in 1980s, including the famous Wapping Dispute, click here.)
DeLong points out that the NUJ has been a guardian of journalistic standards and ethics for over 100 years. The NUJ’s Code of Conduct is long-standing and well-respected. In the past, NUJ writers and editors have refused to run offensive, inaccurate, and irresponsible content, including anti-Gypsy material and intentionally misleading photos of public officials. Twenty five years after forcing out the NUJ, the editorial staff of the News of the World was demoralized and under extreme pressure to chase profits. Meanwhile, the ethical standards of the paper rotted away. DeLong writes:
There is no doubt that journalists working in the News of the World at the time were under extreme pressure to produce exclusives and stress was a major factor. As is gradually becoming clear, there was a culture in the newspaper that accepted widespread use of the “dark arts”. It’s no surprise some journalists took short cuts in these circumstances.
DeLong concludes, “the NUJ could have had an impact” in preventing the paper’s decline. Left without representation, however, those journalists at the News of the World who were opposed to phone-hacking had no voice on the job, and no mechanism to push back against the paper’s unethical practices. The News of the World’s fate makes it clear once again that when workers have no recourse, when a workplace culture lacks balance and swings too far in favor of CEOs, the outcome is ever increasing levels of corporate irresponsibility.
*photo courtesy the National Union of Journalists