Last month the Murdoch-owned papers, ever mindful of their parent company’s controlling interest in Sky TV, led the print media outcry against the corporation’s licence payer-funded culture of profligate expenses and salaries.
Now the BBC is on the offensive against News International, ramping up The Guardian’s stories alleging criminality by the News of the World in authorising hacking into the telephones of celebrities and politicians. The story has dominated BBC news programmes and phone-ins. Partial justification for its prominence is lent by the position of Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World at the time of the alleged misdemeanours and now the Conservative Party’s comms chief. Even allowing for that, the howls of ‘dog eat dog’ are unmistakeable.
The BBC increasingly treads a fine line between news and PR as its media dominance grows amid the advertising recession afflicting commercial media.
Its interest in discrediting the owner of its major TV rival is obvious but never declared in its stories. Equally questionable was its decision to elevate a change of judge on its own Strictly Come Dancing show to a national news story. It looked like a programme plug.
The hacking claims raise serious questions for the News of the World and its dealings with PR professionals and agents.
Clients may appreciate its audience reach, but how many are comfortable doing business with an organisation that allegedly bugs phones? Equally, are commercial sponsors comfortable asking clients to do interviews with a newspaper that may be illegally invading their privacy? It is instructive that rival red tops are not seeking greatly to exploit the News of the World’s discomfort, with cynics suggesting the alleged wrongdoings are not entirely alien to rival newsrooms.
Meanwhile, Coulson’s position looks perilous. David Cameron’s first reaction to the story was to say he was ‘relaxed’ about it. It was an ill-chosen epithet that may have illustrated his spin doctor’s level of distraction.