There is something peculiarly British about the phone hacking scandal.

It was fueled by the British tabloids’ obsession with celebrity and the Royals, and their race to scoop each other on even the most insignificant gossip. But the difference is merely that the British media has gone further, and more quickly, down a path on which the media and the US and Australia are already embarked: a path that leads away to regarding news as another form of light entertainment.

From that perspective a flash of celebrity crotch or a politicians’ affair is regarded with the same importance as significant matters of state. That phone hacking and payments to British police were underway even while News Corporation’s newspapers around the world were singing from the same song sheet in support of the Iraq war is a small but telling symbol of what’s been driving this slow-motion, what-did-they-know-and-when-did-they-know disaster for the House of Murdoch.

It’s not that journalists and editors actually believe celebrity gossip and, say, an illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq, hold the same importance (although some may quite readily do so), it’s that the process of news production now revolves around telling and retelling, over and over, the same small number of stories in which only the details — the date, time and death toll from the road accident; the name of the politician caught out; the number of Australians caught up in a foreign crisis, the government department found to be wasting money; the name of the starlet admitted to rehab — change, never the story or the moral lesson we’re expected to take from it.

In other ways, the News of the World revelations show a classic gatekeeper play. Paying police for information — a claim blundered into by News exec Rebekah Brooks, now retracted — was one thing. But using News Corp’s connections with the police, and police concerns that the might of Murdoch empire would be turned on them if they unearthed anything inconsistent with the “lone journalist” theory (which will soon, undoubtedly, become the “lone executive” theory), is something much more. Like Rupert Murdoch’s effort to get Gordon Brown to take the heat out of the issue, it reflects a traditional mainstream media outfit trading in power and access to power, rather than acting as a watchdog on power.

That’s where WikiLeaks comes in, propelled by the growing sense — less so in the UK, but very much in the US — that the mainstream media has simply abandoned its watchdog role, particularly in the systemic failure to reveal the hollow basis of the Bush administrations’s claims about Iraq.

In that context, the involvement with WikiLeaks of The New York Times, which was the most enthusiastic spruiker of Bush’s weapons of mass destruction lies, has been particularly apt. The NYT played its traditional court reporter role by scrupulously clearing the diplomatic cables with Foggy Bottom, then turned on WikiLeaks with a series of attacks on Julian Assange led right from the top by executive editor Bill Keller — attacks in which The Guardian was happy to join. Indeed, one Guardian journalist set a new benchmark for attacks on WikiLeaks when he suggested Bradley Manning’s decision to go to WikiLeaks rather than The Guardian was the reason he was in jail.

But, accurate or not, and whether the mainstream media like it or not, the impression is abroad that WikiLeaks is doing the stuff they’ve forgotten how to do, that it’s taken on the watchdog role surrendered by journalists, editors and proprietors too busy cultivating politicians, and building their own political influence, to properly challenge governments. And that’s why it’s Assange the US government is desperately searching for ways to incarcerate, and not Keller.

That’s also why the criticism of WikiLeaks from the mainstream media about its alleged insouciance toward the impact of unfiltered revelations on individuals (the usual example being Afghan interpreters) is ultimately a self-defeating line from the traditionalists: the very fact that WikiLeaks is in the position of having to grapple with that issue itself is evidence of how the mainstream media is no longer doing its job properly.

In Britain, the transformation of news into celebrity-focused infotainment has had another, arguably more serious consequence, with British judges deciding that, without action by parliamentarians, the burden of establishing privacy protections falls to the courts. Unlike British MPs, who would face the wrath of both the tabloids and the broadsheets if they seriously pursued a right to privacy aimed at curbing media intrusion, British judges face no such pressure, and have established superinjunctions as a viable method for the wealthy to protect their privacy.

Corporate lawyers, naturally, spotted the opportunity created by celebrities going to court, and turned superinjunctions to the purpose not of preventing the media from embarrassing pop singers or soccer plays, but of preventing the media from revealing material very much in the public interest. The obsession with celebrity has thereby brought about a new era of draconian restrictions on what those journalists and editors still pursuing serious journalism can report.

This, naturally, further enlarges the opportunity for WikiLeaks or, more likely, the host of similar anonymising whistleblower sites springing up online. It was salient the notorious Trafigura superinjunction was smashed apart by WikiLeaks putting the suppressed report on toxic waste dumping online (with a little help from Stephen Fry, who tweeted the link to a million people), and that it was Anonymous whose crack of HBGary Federal led not only to revelations about dirty tricks campaigns at the highest levels of corporate America, but provided an ongoing insight into the new cyberspace military-industrial complex.

All of this looks like a potential roadmap for the Australian media. We’ve already had one version of a superinjunction, when Peter Beattie successfully prevented revelation of the basis on which former minister Merri Rose was prosecuted for blackmail. And media revelations of the affairs of John Della Bosca and Troy Buswell, neither of which was in the public interest, the disgraceful outing of David Campbell and coverage of the Mike Rann assault all show a mainstream media increasingly willing to abandon the traditional restraint on reporting non-public interest personal lives of politicians.

It’s even extended to political journalism — don’t forget last year’s election campaign, when Julia Gillard’s physical appearance, her lack of children and her relationship with her partner were all considered matters of considered public debate by the national broadsheet.

But no major party politician is likely to be willing to adopt the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission, which urged a statutory protection of privacy be developed before the courts did. Like their British counterparts, they’re too concerned about the likely response of the media.

Which means that, unless things go very differently here to how they have gone in the UK, judges will start protecting privacy themselves. And that will be far, far worse for the media than any statutory public interest test for privacy protections. Just ask the Brits.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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