Journalist Nick Davies’ new book is a primer on great reporting and a morality tale about unethical journalism.

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

When a newsroom’s only ethical code is “get the story at any cost,” inevitably it will pay the price in the loss of its credibility.

Or fail entirely, as was the moral of the story of Rupert Murdoch’s corrupt News of the World, the tabloid newspaper that shut down in July 2011 in the wake of phone-hacking revelations that shocked journalists and readers the world over.

That story is relatively well-known by now, having led to Britain’s Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, which resulted in a 1,987-page, four-volume report that documented the worst ethical failings of the British press, mainly its down-market tabloids and most notoriously, the News of the World.

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From the outset, the hero of this story was the Guardian’s investigative journalist Nick Davies, who uncovered the scandal through six years of dogged reporting. His much-anticipated new book, Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch, is a riveting read, giving us a deep look into truth and power, a primer on great reporting and a morality tale about the excesses of journalism when no ethical boundaries exist.

Davies details the bullying culture of tabloid newsrooms where reporters will do anything for a scoop, simply to survive. As he writes, “Tabloid editors will send out their reporters with an unmistakable message pinned painfully to the back of their heads — ‘just get the story.’ No excuses are accepted, no failure is allowed . . .

“So of course when those reporters are there on the road with nothing much more than their imagination and their anxiety for company, some of them may well decide to invent quotes, fabricate facts, cheat sources, steal pictures, ignore rules, break laws, anything to be allowed to feel good.”

The British tabloid culture Davies describes is sickening to anyone who cares about ethical journalism in the public interest. What passes for the public interest in those newsrooms is, for the most part, simple prurience. A great deal of the substandard journalism he describes was committed in the mission of telling readers about the sex lives of B-list movie stars and TV personalities. The tabloid fascination with who’s sleeping with whom is mind-boggling.

All of this could make me ashamed to call myself a journalist were I not confident that the Toronto Star and, for the most part, Canadian media overall have self-regulation measures in place to ensure journalists do not make things up or break the law in pursuit of a story. That’s not to say that questionable journalism never occurs, but largely, I cannot envision journalists I know resorting to the shameful methods of those British “cowboys with notebooks” Davies tells us about who were “making up stories and ruining people’s lives.”

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.