Checkbook Journalism’s Slippery Slope

Murdoch's scandals show why paying for news is a bad idea

Combine the culture of checkbook journalism with the culture of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and you get one of the biggest media scandals of all time.

Paying for news is at the root of News Corp.’s hacking and bribery scandals, and the reaction by tabloid hacks to the revelations about The Sun is revealing about the journalistic environment that gave rise to them.

Here’s Murdoch’s former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, writing in the Daily Mail (emphasis mine) :

If the whistle-blower asks for money, so what? It’s better that we know, for example, that our local hospital is killing its elderly patients through lack of care than have the Press ignore a nurse or an ambulance driver who is asking for payment for such information.

I suspect you, as a reader, will be pleased that newspapers report such scandals, even if they have to pay money to find out about them. How, otherwise, would we discover what’s really happening?

By reporting, I reckon. U.S. newspapers have frequently exposed abusive nursing homes and defective hospitals over the years, using conventional reporting methods. In fact, that story is something of a staple of U.S. journalism. And, really, does there exist an ambulance driver or nurse so callous as to demand a payoff before blowing the whistle on a “local hospital killing its elderly patients through lack of care?” Or is that just a made-up example? And besides, we’re not talking about killer-hospital stories. This is basically about gossip, isn’t it?

Nice try, MacKenzie.

Here’s Sun deputy editor Trevor Kavanagh attacking the police raids on his colleagues a couple of weeks ago (emphasis his):

These stories sometimes involve whistleblowers. Sometimes money changes hands. This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad.

There is nothing disreputable about it. And, as far as we know at this point, nothing illegal.

The Sun is accused of getting stories by systematically bribing police and other government officials with hundreds of thousands of pounds—something Rupert Murdoch has all but admitted. Some officials were effectively on retainer to provide what the cops say was mostly “salacious gossip.”

At News of the World the hacking was outsourced to private investigators like Glenn Mulcaire and Jonathan Rees, and they were paid for their information much like any other source with inside dope. They in turn paid cops and other officials for their info, reportedly to the tune of at least $160,000

It’s clear from the quotes above that this culture of bribing public officials for information comes directly from the culture of paying non-officials for information. This is a news culture where at least some participants, including senior ones like MacKenzie, can’t fathom getting much of the sensitive information they report without paying for it. Bribing the cops, then, is only natural, and perhaps inevitable—particularly in a market as competitive as Fleet Street.

Once money enters the reporting equation, it has the potential to corrupt the whole journalist/source relationship. Why would you talk to a reporter for free if you can get 500 quid, say, from another one?

The man on the street understands this, so it’s not surprising that cops and other government officials would ask for money too—or accept it when enticed by those who’ve become dependent on it to get stories. The Met says one Sun journalist paid out $240,000 to officials over several years.

It’s also not surprising that Murdoch’s papers were the fastest down the slippery slope. We’ve long known that his outlets tend to play loose with—or ignore altogether—the rules of journalism, such as they are. I’ve written before that “Murdoch just never bought into —indeed, he sneers at it—the ethical edifice that journalism as an institution built up over the last half a century or so. He’s hardly the only one, but few so aggressively laid bare their disregard for standards, both journalistic and societal,” and that that attitude gave him a sort of selection advantage against competitors. It’s like Gresham’s Law, where bad money drives out the good.

There have been no indications or allegations yet that other newspapers (beyond News of the World) paid officials, at least in the systematic way The Sun apparently did. It’s clear the Murdoch outlets were a particularly rotten bunch. It’s not clear yet how much more rotten they were than their competitors.

In mainstream U.S. journalism, paying sources for news has long been out of bounds, and it’s harder to imagine something like this happening here. Sure, TV networks cross that line by paying people in the news “licensing fees” in exchange for exclusive interviews and images, and tabloid outlets like the National Enquirer, Gawker, and TMZ have little compunction about paying for news. But the dominant newsgathering culture here has considered it taboo. The tabloids are the dominant newsgathering culture in the UK, at least in print, where The Sun has more than ten times the circulation of The Guardian.

This is not to say that there’s no possible journalistic upside to paying officials for information. The money surely incentivizes the disclosure of important information that sources wouldn’t otherwise leak. See, for instance, the 2009 expenses scandal in Parliament.

The Telegraph broke that story after the government source shopped the files around Fleet Street, ultimately getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the paper. We’ll never know if that source would have found it worthwhile to risk a career leaking that damning information, which eventually led to several criminal charges and dozens of resignations and retirements, but it’s reasonable to suspect that they would not have.

But in the Sun case the payments, which the Met says mainly bought “salacious gossip,” are obviously unjustifiable, and they show why a journalistic standard that frowns on paying for news is ultimately the way to go.

Maybe if Murdoch’s papers spent less time and money paying for gossip and more investigating the local hospital…ah, well.

Forget it, Jake. It’s Londontown.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,