Making The News

Unethical journalism may be a global phenomena, but not all the watchdogs need watching.

In the United Kingdom, the phone-hacking investigation into Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World took a turn last week that almost everyone following the scandal had been expecting: formal charges.

The famous and powerful were not spared. Among the eight who were charged with conspiracy to hack into the phones of 600 people, including a murdered teenager, were UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s former director of communications Andy Coulson, and Rebekah Brooks, the right hand of Rupert Murdoch in London. Coulson was formerly editor of the now-defunct News of the World and Brooks led the paper until she resigned in disgrace last year.

An editor of The Guardian, which has played a pivotal role in bringing News of the World’s practices to light, opined that Cameron should face, “charges of sheer arrogance, incompetence and failure to heed vital warning signs that brought this scandal to the heart of government.” Court trials of the alleged perpetrators will soon follow and it is probably not outside the realm of imagination to expect some guilty verdicts.

But something that happened in the United States of America, also last week, makes me wonder whether those implicated in the scandal on the other side of the Atlantic will one day roam with a clear conscience and record.

The US story begins in the late 1990s in the midwestern state of Ohio.

A reporter with Cincinnati Enquirer published an investigative package against a huge US Fruit company, Chiquita Brands International, alleging bribery and corruption among other violations. The stories were published in an 18-page special section, all in the same day. But in less than two months, the Cincinnati Enquirer had paid more than $10 million to Chiquita and retracted the entire series issuing front page apologies.

As it turned out, the reporter had obtained information by hacking into Chiquita’s voicemail system. Ouch! The reporter in question – Michael Gallagher – pleaded guilty to felony charges and was sentenced to five years of probation. Needless to say he was fired from the paper.

But that was in 1998.

What happened last week was quite astonishing. On July 24, 2012 the reporter had his entire criminal record expunged. In other words, it’s like he never committed those violations.

The extent of the scandal across the Atlantic is vastly different. One was a case of an errant reporter crossing the line. The other seems to be endemic of a news organisation. Still one can’t help but wonder whether we will witness something similar years later where any that end up being proved guilty will have the opportunity to clear their names.

In both the News of the World phone hacking investigation and the Cincinnati Enquirer case, the allegations of phone hacking appear to be on solid ground.

But in many cases, the companies that are the target of a journalist’s investigation try every means to undermine the journalist’s credibility. Their goal is to make the reporter stop writing.

I found myself in such a situation a couple of years ago when I was investigating a real estate development firm that had obtained state funding for a highly-touted biotech project in Minnesota. I managed to dig up some illegal activity that naturally made me Public Enemy No 1 at this California company.

They started alleging that I had become too emotionally involved with my coverage and was trying to sabotage their project and the state’s involvement in it. They then hired a public relations person who actually worked for the company I worked for. What kind of professional ethics this contractor lived by was a mystery to me – one of the cardinal principles of the PR industry in America is to avoid conflict of interest at all costs. And him taking an assignment from the company while being also a paid contractor at my firm stank to high heaven.

He called my editor and said that a member of the Minnesota State Legislature had “chewed me out” for my coverage and that my editor should talk to that gentleman and other sources who were upset with me. My boss did, and concluded that their allegations were essentially downright false. It was a nerve-wracking time because I knew that they were trying to get me fired.

After my editor concluded that there was no truth to their allegations, I wrote several more stories. As I gained sources, I ended up getting my hands on some internal emails of executives at the California firm. With great delight, I included some relevant portions in a story.

That infuriated an executive so much that he fumed that I must have hacked into their e-mail system. He could imagine no other way for me to access such secured communication. My editor though, wasn’t taken in by the allegations and asked me to carry on reporting on the matter.

The News of the World case shows to what lengths journalists can go to get the news first and beat the competition. And the Cincinnati Enquirer case is likely an example of a reporter so intent on proving illegal activity at the company, that he felt the end justified the means.

I think what is important for people to recognize is that these unethical practices are more the exception than the rule. The rest of us are just trying to do our jobs as watchdogs.


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