UK’s media scandals and our debate on regulation

The stench from the UK media scandals continues to smell. Last Sunday’s closure of one the world’s biggest newspapers, The News of the World only served to open a can worms in this mess that has engulfed the tabloid world. The News of the World, which has been publishing since 1868 is said to have routinely asked a private investigator to hack into mobile phone mailboxes, which according to the UK laws is a crime.

The stench from the UK media scandals continues to smell. Last Sunday’s closure of one the world’s biggest newspapers, The News of the World only served to open a can worms in this mess that has engulfed the tabloid world.

The News of the World, which has been publishing since 1868 is said to have routinely asked a private investigator to hack into mobile phone mailboxes, which according to the UK laws is a crime.

The victims now include celebrities, politicians, families of terrorism victims and dead soldiers. Every Sunday morning the world was treated to screaming headlines, resulting from the laziest form of journalism, one of simply eavesdropping.

Ever since September 11th, most especially after the US Patriot Act, the world was getting used to the fact that security agencies were the only entities that have the power to listen-in on what we have to say, not at least the journalists.

However, these acts by reporters of The News of the World have not only exposed the corrupt tendencies of western media but particularly brought shame to the ‘puritans’ who endlessly have lectured us, in the developing world, on the values of transparency and accountability.

I strongly believe that the unprofessional shortcomings of this tabloid are a common practice that is shared by many tabloids including broad-sheet newspapers in these developed nations.

The interesting tale here is how this syndicate went on for a long time without being exposed and yet many individuals both in the media and government knew about it. 

At least from what we have heard, the journalists within The News of the World knew about this illegal phone hacking but kept a tight lip.

The files handed over last month suggest that police received some payments from this tabloid to aid them in hacking phones, making them accomplices.

The politicians were not also left out, especially some members of parliament who were hesitant to utter a word for fear of a backlash from the newspapers. Am sure the telecom companies also knew a thing or two about this.

The other interesting part of this scandal, which I want to relate to the new developments in Rwanda’s media landscape, is the debate generated on the need to regulate the media.

Some in the UK say that given the futility of the Press Complaints Commission, which is a self-regulatory body and the continued irresponsible conduct of the media, there needs to be government intervention to provide regulatory oversights of the media

This brings me to the on-going debate on a recent cabinet decision to have the media in our country regulate themselves.

First of all, I need to state it on record that am a strong proponent of self-regulation for the industry. But like I have mentioned in these pages before, self-regulation can only flourish or succeed if our media exhibit a high degree of responsibility and professional mark.

Our media must understand that much as they demand accountability from public authorities, they too must be held accountable for the mistakes they commit.

This calls for professional discipline and strong adherence to ethics and norms of the industry. 

Can the new granted peer regulation of our media guarantee this discipline? Self regulation depends on an individual’s own willingness to abide by the code. What will happen if a member decides to ignore sanctions from his peers? 

At least for now, even those in the advanced world of journalism seem to be going back to the drawing board.

The story of The News of the World only serves to bring back the debate as to whether self-regulation is a workable solution for the ever growing powerful media that continue to work in a competitive environment where journalists will do anything to break a headline. 

If the UK with its long history of a professional media can witness such incidents where norms of the profession are discarded, how about we, where even the basic values of news reporting are flouted day-in-day-out?

Unlike us, the incidents in the UK media are not violations based on basic fundamental ethos of journalism. They are more sophisticated.

For us, it’s about violation of the ordinary and basic tenets of news reporting that one picks from journalism school.

So, will self-regulation be the redeemer of this situation? Lessons from elsewhere seem to suggest otherwise. There’s no doubt that self regulation is the strongest ingredient for an independent and free media that any journalist cherishes.

However, from what we see elsewhere, peer regulation has equally failed to deliver on holding the press accountable for their acts.

This is a debate worth our time as we begin to swim into these waters.

On twitter @aasiimwe
Blog: aasiimwe.wordpress.com

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