Is there any end in sight to the News of the World scandal? At press time, the allegations against the now-defunct tabloid include hacking into voice-mails of murder victims and war casualties, bribing police officers to gain classified information about high-profile individuals, and illegally investigating officials investigating the paper.
Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News International, resigned and was arrested two days later. Les Hinton, CEO of Dow Jones and former News International head, also fell on his sword. The resignations of Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and head of counter-terror operations John Yates followed. Andy Coulson, former editor and ex-communications chief for Prime Minister David Cameron was arrested. The paper was closed in July after 168 years.
This is a mountain of a controversy and the summit is not in sight. It's being called "the UK's Watergate." But while News of the World was a British paper, ramifications of its misdeeds extend globally. The tabloid's parent company is the US-based News Corporation, whose holdings include Fox TV Networks, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Post. News Corp. has already seen its share prices plummet, been forced to abandon its $12 billion takeover of British Sky Broadcasting, and has had several US congressmen call for a federal investigation into potential illegalities committed in the US.
In the midst of this turmoil are echoes of similar violations of the public trust, such as Jayson Blair's brief but disastrous run at The New York Times, which he left in May 2003 in the wake of the discovery of plagiarism and fabrications in his stories.
Few will emerge from the scandal with their reputations intact, but there are lessons to be learned from the debacle.
Every week we hear a new proclamation about the impending "death" of traditional media. Given the challenging climate for print institutions, publishers crave the big, eye-popping stories to attract readers. But that desire must be tempered by considerations of public good. Journalists - and all communicators - have the responsibility to shepherd information to their audience. That mandate holds no allowance for the exploitation or outright harm of a story's subjects, nor does it permit the transgression of legal or social mores for the sake of a compelling piece.
It's also worth noting that PR pros, particularly in the entertainment sector, have now lost a viable pitch target, so the News of the World's downfall has a pragmatic impact on communicators, too.
We must never hurt those we seek to inform, never disillusion those we hope to educate, and never betray the trust granted us by democracy. In our line of work, ethics are not a matter of choice.
Ilya Leybovich is the news editor of PRWeek. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.