Matthew Creamer

Real Reporters (and Hugh Grant) Hammer News of the World Hacks

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

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Hugh Grant discusses the News of the World.
Hugh Grant discusses the News of the World.

It's a coincidence that on this of all weeks The Economist states its concerns about the future of so-called "accountability journalism." That's the very expensive breed of newsgathering that speaks truth to power in often advertiser un-friendly ways, the kind they teach you in J-school and actually happened from time to time in the 1970s. While The Economist's report was in the final stages of editing, The Guardian reminded everyone that accountability journalism is not dead yet -- with Nick Davies' outstanding reporting on widespread phone hacking at News Corp.'s News of the World. The consequent shutdown of the rag triggered plenty of skeptical reaction, with just about everyone netting out to the conclusion that this was less a show of remorse than a political Hail Mary.

The move was no doubt in line with Rupert Murdoch's business plan. Beheading the 168-year-old Fleet Street mainstay helps streamline his London newspaper operations, although he may well introduce a Sunday edition of the Sun to keep a hand in the weekend game, and acts as a burnt offering to the surely angry regulatory gods mulling News Corp.'s bid for total control of BSkyB. Offering even more fodder for the cynics was Mr. Murdoch's decision not to bother to sack Rebekah Brooks, the now-senior News Corp. exec who was running the paper back when it had folks deleting voicemails for a missing teenage girl who was ultimately found dead.

None of this, however, should take away from Mr. Davies' accomplishment at The Guardian. The challenges facing "accountability journalism" aren't just economic. Glassy-eyed audiences sweaty with Bieber fever, do-little politicians only made to squirm when they tweet pics of their junk, and corporate boards too cozy with the executives they oversee all make for a rough go for Woodward and Bernstein types, whose efficacy relies on people giving a shit. Yet with a whole lot of doorstepping sources and burning shoeleather, the badass Mr. Davies managed to cut through all that and achieve what might be the ultimate goal for a media outlet in our fallen times: He got another media outlet shut down.

The journalists at the News of the World then encountered a problem. Milly's voicemail box filled up and would accept no more messages. Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened -- and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.

While Mr. Davies' reporting was generally unaided by any Journalism 2.0 buzzwords -- no encrypted leaking platform for him -- the truth effort did get a hand up from citizen journalism: one Hugh Grant, the actor best understood as Colin Firth before Colin Firth was Colin Firth, i.e. the Brit who large masses of Americans are OK with. Earlier this year, Mr. Grant ferreted out some of the details by conducting a sort of sting on an ex-features editor and then published his finding in The New Statesman ("The bugger bugged, as it were"). It's a fascinating story that actually involves a pen recorder. This week he was back on the Beeb in a sort of exchange with that former editor, Paul McMullan. Mr. Grant got off the last barb: "You should try real journalism. You're not an idiot, Paul. You could probably do it."

Not to be outdone by Mr. Grant (her ex-boyfriend), Jemima Khan, a writer for the Independent, detailed her own adventures as a hacking victim. She takes issue with the suggestion that all the hackees had to do was change their voicemail password, offering celebrity proof: "Sienna Miller changed her phone PIN hundreds of times, sometimes daily, and she even changed her mobile number three times. Each time she did, it took a private investigator just a matter of hours to crack her new code. The theory is that the News of the World had a source at CTI, the accounts company which held the accounts information for all the major phone companies, except O2. The source there would change the PINs on behalf of private investigators or journalists at The News of the World so they could access private messages."

The New York Times' Ravi Somaiya examined the fallout on News of the World in this nice piece filed from the pub where the soon-to-be-unemployed were having a few pints on the Murdochs: "As reporters drank, and merged with other members of the press present to cover the shutdown, some expressed more sanguine views. 'Maybe we'll get a nice lump sum,' one said. He paused and added, 'Life's too short to worry anyway.' But another journalist, part of the covering pack, suggested that Mr. Murdoch and Ms. Brooks had made a strategic error in unleashing hundreds of angry and 'ruthless reporters with an axe to grind.'

Our final entry is something a little different. Think of it not as a story about journalistic shenanigans but rather a blueprint for journalistic shenanigans. Thanks to the New York Times' Nick Bilton, we know that Mark Zuckerberg likes to take prospective hires on a walk through the woods before he pops the question. Unanswered in his nicely-detailed post, based on the anonymous accounts of a couple who treated to Zuck's sylvan courting style, is how long it'll take Gawker to get a few lensmen out in the treeline: "When the visitor arrived, he met Mr. Zuckerberg in his office, and was then immediately whisked away to the wooded trail. More than one potential employee who experienced the same encounter said the entire experience was "'pretty disorienting.'"

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