By Professor Howard Tumber, Professor of Journalism and Communication at City, University of London, and Professor Silvio Waisbord, Director and Professor of the School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University
The recent political scandal in the UK involving Owen Paterson, a Conservative MP who was found to have broken parliamentary standards by repeatedly lobbying the government on behalf of two companies which paid him a large regular monthly fee, presents a classic case of a media scandal.
Paterson’s lobbying work was revealed by an investigation in The Guardian newspaper in 2019. Allegations of wrongdoing were followed by an inquiry by the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, and a damning report from the House of Commons committee on standards, which recommended a 30-day suspension for the MP.
The Johnson government then tried to overturn the process, leading to a political and public furore, forcing a U-turn. Paterson subsequently resigned as an MP and opprobrium was heaped on the prime minister, Boris Johnson, with allegations in the media of sleaze and corruption about him and his government.
Spurred on by this episode, journalists dug for stories about other Conservative MPs who may have broken the rules. These included the former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, whose work for the British Virgin Islands, among other clients, has reportedly brought him more than £6 million in his 16 years as an MP.
The episode played out with daily revelations in the press at a time when all eyes were on the UK as the host of the COP26 climate summit.
It is hard to imagine scandals existing without news coverage. Media attention provides the oxygen that fuels scandals. No matter if they happen in politics (the Watergate Affair), business (Enron and fraud), entertainment (Harvey Weinstein and #Me Too), sports (Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal), science Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine, or religion (the Catholic Church and sexual abuse), scandals pry open gaps between expected and actual behaviour. This is why virtually no part of society is exempt.
But if scandals need the media to provide oxygen, it the media also benefits from scandals, which illustrates the multiple motivations for press coverage. There are a number of reasons a news organisation might go after a scandal. Exposing wrongdoing by the powerful bolsters the credentials of the press as a public watchdog. Scandals attract eyeballs, increasing audience ratings and circulation and boosting revenues. They can also help reinforce the ideological positions of news organisations.
So, for instance, while the left/liberal Guardian was part of the team that exposed tax-avoidance practices of the powerful elites, the conservative Daily Telegraph vigorously pursued MPs’ expenses, trumpeting of Labour transgressors: “The party may take the moral high ground, but lying and cheating are deep in its DNA.”
Sometimes the news media itself becomes the centre of a scandal, engaging in dubious practices such as deception and invasion of privacy to “get the story”. The phone-hacking case in the UK was a prime example of this.
The mainstream media remain important in breaking scandalous news and further documenting wrongdoing. But they aren’t the only gatekeepers now. “Legacy” media has been joined by specialist investigative sites, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and social media where people can share tips and stories.
As these new sources of information have added their voices, the dynamics of reporting and gatekeeping scandal stories have become more complex and fluid and the unfolding of scandals has become far more unpredictable. The pace and the content of scandals can rapidly and unexpectedly shift as various different voices introduce new revelations and broadcast to large new and motivated audiences, sending stories “viral” when people pass them on to their friends.
Accordingly, scandal management has had to change. People and institutions implicated in scandals have to confront a more chaotic information ecology to control messages and provide tight, well-managed responses.
The digital revolution has also brought with it new ways of finding, processing and reporting sensitive information with scandalous potential. Journalists and citizens have learned to explore digital data to reveal wrongdoing. As digital footprints can be traced and reconstructed, professional and citizen reporters can scrutinise people and institutions to shed light on their political and financial records as well as their behaviour and statements.
Often they set up collaborative platforms to pool their resources in researching stories. The emergence of new types of journalistic collaboration led to the revelations about the surveillance state by former NSA employee Edward Snowden and the Panama papers exposure, which were investigated by an international group of newspapers and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
But while their newsmaking power continues to grow, revelations by these non-traditional platforms need support from established news organisations and digital platforms with large followings.
The big media organisations are more likely to have the resources, expertise and social prominence to get the stories in front of large audiences. This in turn will spark further revelations as a story gathers pace.
Heroes and villains
Media scandals overwhelmingly focus on flawed people, rather than on the structural forces that allow, foster and condone their transgressions. Individual peccadilloes are more likely to attract attention than systemic social problems: corruption, wrongdoing, institutional racism, violence, sexism and corporate abuses.
Media narratives tend to accentuate this problem as they tend to offer simplified stories about heroes and villains instead of deeper examination of social problems that have led to the scandal and all-too often remain after the noise has died down.
The Paterson scandal is following this classic path. Inevitably as soon as the people portrayed as villains are taken down, it will be back to business as usual. The scandal may lead to minor changes in the way the standards committee investigates MPs. But if major structural changes had taken place following the 1994 cash for questions scandal, this latest scandal would not have occurred.
But it didn’t, so decades later the watchword for public officials remains: don’t get caught.