Culture At Large

News of the World, integrity and the price of a free press

Jonathan Downie

It is the scandal that has gripped Western media attention for weeks. Following several investigations, the News of the World, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, has closed due to allegations of illegal wire tapping and corruption. Two men have been jailed for their own part in the scandal, two previous editors of the paper have been arrested and the head of London’s Metropolitan Police has resigned. In the United States, where News of the World's parent company owns several well-known media outlets, including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, there have been calls for a federal investigation to see if American citizens have also been victims of hacking.

The round-the-clock coverage could easily lead us to see it as an amusing sideshow or some kind of political game, yet there are deep implications at work. This story should and will have an impact on how we approach integrity and responsibility, and it should also make us ponder the costs and limits of freedom of the press.

Taking the last of these first, it now seems unlikely that we can go back to the days of happily consuming an ever-growing mountain of news updates without asking how these updates were created and for what purpose. If the free press is to play a useful role in society, we must be able to trust that the information we read was gathered responsibly. Clearly, in this case, such trust was breached. The immediate consequence of this is that we need to ask questions on the ethics of different news gathering techniques and even of the publication of certain stories.

For those of us who live in societies obsessed with rights and freedoms, this is an urgent wake-up call to pay as much attention to the limits of those freedoms and the responsibilities that come with them. Perhaps it is time that the idea of responsible, pricey freedom replace our current view of freedom as something we can take for granted and demand to be given.

The range and character of the resignations and arrests also demonstrates that integrity and responsibility may have a much wider scope than we previously imagined. There is, for instance, no suggestion that the head of the Metropolitan Police has actually done anything wrong. However, he felt that his previous involvement with a News of the World journalist would be an unwelcome distraction from the work of his organization.

We used to think that integrity was all about our character behind closed doors. However, this story continues to suggest that integrity is also connected with whom we choose as our friends, the way we influence those around us and even the information we choose to consume. After all, much of the coverage of the story has centered on the relationships between News of the World journalists and public figures instead of the allegations themselves.

For individualistic societies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, this is a challenging development. It suggests that we are our brother’s keepers after all. Like it or not, if we are to judge politicians and policemen for having ill-judged friendships, it turns the spotlight on those we are allowing to influence us. It would be hypocrisy to expect our leaders to choose their friends carefully and yet not do the same ourselves.

In short, personal integrity means that we are responsible to ensure that all our choices - public, private and corporate - are ethical and God-honoring. It means that we are accountable for every area of our lives, including the websites we visit and the newspapers we read.

Jonathan Downie is an interpreter, translator, consultant, preacher and researcher based in Scotland. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, World, Justice, North America