Monday 6 February 2012

Phone Hacking: Exploring 'media omerta'

“[Nick] Davies’s work…has gained no traction at all in the rest of Fleet Street, which operates under a system of omerta so strict that it would secure a nod of approbation from the heads of the big New York crime families"
Peter Oborne, The Observer, April 2010

"There seemed to be some omerta principle at work that meant that not a single other national newspaper thought this could possibly be worth an inch of newsprint" 
Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, Newsweek, 2011

Tomorrow I'm heading into London to go to Coventry University. (Yep, you heard me right.) I'll be attending the book launch of The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial. And you can still get tickets here if you are interested.

Judith Townend and I have written a chapter for the book exploring Oborne and Rusbridger's assertions that the press significantly under-reported the phone hacking scandal - a news story which would eventually lead to the demise of the News of the World, several high profile resignations and the ongoing Leveson Inquiry.

We thought it would be interesting to find out just what 'media omerta' looked like by tracing how many articles were written on the subject from June 2006 to November 2011 and when they were written.

Using the Nexis database, we counted up the number of articles written on the topic in various newspapers. (At the bottom of this post, I have provided a more detailed explanation of the methodology we used including the limitations of the data.)

The table below shows the total number of articles written and even further below I have produced (at some personal cost to my capacity for patience with Google Documents) a few pretty graphs which show the cumulative total number of articles at 6 month intervals.

If you roll over the blue dots at each point it will tell you the cumulative total at the relevant point in time. (Pretty cool, huh. And really straightforward to produce with Google Docs...see hindsight kicking in already).

Table: Total number of articles June 2006 - 10 November 2011

The Guardian 879
The Independent 489
The Telegraph 436
The Times 332
Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday* 318
Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror 162
The Sun 112

Graphs: The Broadsheets
Graphs: The Tabloids
Our Chapter

In the book, we use this as a starting point to explore what all of these numbers mean.

We reckon that explanations for the non-reporting of the phone hacking scandal need to delve beyond simplistic, if valid, assertions of industry cover-up.

To understand why the majority of national newspapers didn't regard phone hacking as newsworthy, it is necessary to unpick a tangled web of contributing factors.

In the chapter, we explore competing professional, political and commercial interests; the failure of other organisations – particularly the Metropolitan Police – to investigate the matter thoroughly; and the intimidating power of News International.

Note on Methods

We retrieved articles for the following search terms in news articles between 1 July 2006 and 10 November 2011: (‘phone tapping’) or (‘phone hacking’) or (‘voicemail interception’) and (‘news of the world’). The articles were filtered for ‘moderate similarity’ ensuring that most duplicates were discarded. Some duplicates may not have been filtered out and it is possible that articles relevant to phone hacking which did not satisfy the search terms were not counted. The data should therefore not be regarded as completely accurate in terms of unique numbers but the approach nevertheless provides a valuable assessment of the comparative weight of coverage given to phone hacking by each title. 

*The Nexis database groups Daily and Sunday together.


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