Phone hacking and the death of confidence in institutions

Anyone want to take the bet that the News of the World phone-hacking scandal — with its imploded daily newspaper, harried and grizzled media magnate, public parliamentary hearings, arrested executives, resigned top cops, dead whistle-blowers, laptop-computer-removed-from-trash-dumpster near main editor’s house — won’t, in some fashion anyway, very soon make its way to the silver screen? 

I didn’t think so. 

If anyone paranoid and distrustful of public institutions needed any further ammunition for their cause, this case provides it in droves. 

First, journalists. Even before the scandal broke, Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll showed that journalists fall pretty far down the list among those Americans accord “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence — only 28 percent in newspapers and 27 percent in television news. 

If that poll were redone today, it is likely those numbers would have dropped a notch or two. The unethical lengths to which News of the World journalists — apparently with the knowledge and, indeed, urging of their editors — went to get scoops is difficult to fathom. There’s always been a certain segment of journalists who resorted to bottom-feeding, digging through people’s trash, spying through hedges, slipping the doorman cash for gossip. But routinely hacking into people’s voicemail — including that of an abducted and murdered 13-year-old girl — and listening to their private messages? 

Then there’s the police. They enjoy the confidence of 56 percent of people in this country. In England today, that percentage is surely much lower. The top two officials of the fabled Scotland Yard have resigned over allegations that police, among other things, took bribes from journalists to give them information about cellphone locations — allowing journalists to hunt down newsmakers and celebrities. 

And then there are politicians. In this country, members of Congress consistently rank at the bottom of the public confidence index. This year is no exception, at a dismal 12 percent. But Britain’s members of parliament are in an even tighter spot. The prime minister is dealing with the awkward situation of having hired a former top editor of News of the World — who has now been arrested — as his communications director. And all sorts of cozy and unethical relationships between reporters and politicos are coming to light. 

The cynics among us are likely feeling some validation. But does public distrust of these institutions carry over to others? Until the mid-1980s, the “church or organized religion” enjoyed the highest confidence rating; now it has slipped to 48 percent, while the military has shot to the top with 78 percent. That may be normal in wartime, but it is a sad commentary on how organized religion has done in living its ideals.