The First Death Rattle of the Print Press

Jul 06, 2011 | Updated Sep 05, 2011

Phone hacking is the only show in town this week, and a combination of disgust and intrigue has everyone hooked.

It's sad that it has taken the appalling news that Milly Dowler's phone was hacked (and messages were deleted) for this story to achieve national prominence. Perhaps it says a great deal about the esteem in which our politicians and celebrities are held that there was little public condemnation when we knew that they had been targeted. But it's also strange to see the news that parents of the Soham victims were hacked leading the rolling news coverage.

After all, Labour MP Tom Watson -- who has courageously fought against News International over phone hacking since this was a niche issue -- raised the Soham case in a speech last month. I reported that speech at the time, but sadly, it took a critical mass of depressing news for the country at large to take note.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the whole saga is the near certainty that we haven't yet seen how deep the rabbit hole goes. As Shamik Das astutely noted earlier this week, the tabloid press as a whole have been reluctant to cover phone hacking. It is hard not to believe that more, equally disturbing, press scandals may come to light in the coming months and years. As Gabby Hinsliff points out, getting a scoop is expensive, and as online media evolves and expands (including today's Huffington Post UK launch), the "dead tree" press will come under increasing pressure to secure newspaper sales. And, sadly, that is likely to mean more dubious reporting.

There's something almost romantic about the notion of the lone blogger with their laptop, uncovering corruption and scandals. Yet we should also be concerned about the decline of the free press, both financially and morally. Because although newspapers can be capable of extreme and sometimes evil misdeeds, they're also the only organisations with the scope and resources to uncover such misdeeds.

It's likely that phone hacking is the first major death rattle of the print press (or at the very least, the tabloid press). The media will continue to go through periodic spasms as news increasingly moves (and is broken) online. We've only just begun to discover how deep the rabbit hole goes, and it already smells like a sewer.