Scandals are like brush fires. They often spontaneously ignite, but they need oxygen and a following wind to maintain the burning. Sometimes when they appear to have died down, they will suddenly flare up again. Most of all, scandals, like fires, can do enormous damage and threaten all who come into close proximity. In
New Zealand, most recently, it was the scandal over ACC. A single newspaper story detailing a massive privacy breach by the corporation quickly grew into a rolling calamity of biblical proportions that saw a minister, the chairman, two board members and the CEO resign. As bad as it was, ACC’s original error should not have had this effect, as the subsequent case of the Winz privacy breach showed. With Winz, the minister quickly fronted the media, expressed her sincere concern, accepted the mistake and announced remedial action. The scandal was swiftly extinguished.
ACC’s response was to stubbornly deny responsibility, obfuscate and egregiously work to blacken the complainant’s name. This lack of transparency and its acts of malice fed a media frenzy that led to the demise of the men at the top. It is Crisis Management 101. When in a hole, stop digging. Admit your mistake, apologise and take action to remedy the fault.
The mass media will quickly turn into a lynch mob if it appears you are hiding something, ducking responsibility or failing to act. Editors and journalists reserve the most venom for failures of their own. Two examples of this are the News International phone-hacking scandal and the continuous crises afflicting the BBC over its handling of the Jimmy Savile saga and the subsequent false sex allegations against an innocent former politician.
In the case of the Murdoch empire, it was the failure of top management to acknowledge the extent of the illegality committed by its staff that whipped news coverage into a frenzy. The prospect of the mighty falling from grace was an added integral component of that story.
Similarly, there was a fair amount of schadenfreude in the British media over the BBC’s catastrophic collapse of editorial values over, first, its failure to investigate Savile’s horrific sexual abuse offending and then the wrongful allegation of paedophile acts committed by a Tory peer. Both of these illustrate how important it is for a media organisation to maintain the highest possible standards of fairness, honesty and accuracy in its reportage. Failure to do so will inevitably result in disaster for the company concerned.
Good journalism requires real skill and experience. It is a difficult craft and one not easily learnt. Which leads me to worry about the future of a failing weekly newspaper that recently appointed as an editor a right-wing blogger with no background in journalism and no apparent understanding of basic reportage. Political bloggers happily ply their online trade, mixing fact with opinion, showing little interest in accuracy. Their object is to excite comment and settle scores with ideological opponents. Editing a mainstream newspaper entails a different skill set. You can say virtually anything you like in the blogosphere, but enter the mainstream media and you become much more accountable.
The newspaper in question, in quest of a scandal, recently trumpeted a poisonous “story” regarding the sad death of a popular Wellington lawyer and made a vile accusation about a reporter from a rival publication. Aside from arguably being in breach of the Coroner’s Act, it was, according to the accused reporter’s editor, wrong. Worse still, it compounded the grief and distress of the lawyer’s family to no real purpose other than selling a few more newspapers. One of the weekly paper’s owners is the son of a respected publishing family and, frankly, should be ashamed of his publication’s lack of basic journalistic standards. He will come to regret it, I am sure.