Though the punters (that’s you, dear reader) aren’t usually let in on the secret, it is a truth universally acknowledged among journalists that any story belonging exclusively to the competition must be rubbish. This has nothing to do with politics: in the early days of the Watergate scandal the New York Times, which had endorsed George McGovern, ran fewer than a third as many column inches on the story as the Washington Post.There are (very rare) exceptions: one of the many pleasures of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is his account of the way Fred Cook, the great muckraking reporter at the New York World-Telegram (and a longtime contributor to The Nation) kept his expose of Robert Moses alive by sharing the material with a friend (and competitor) at the Post. But so far the Guardian, which last Wednesday broke the news of how two newspapers belonging to Rupert Murdoch illegally hacked into the mobile phone accounts of "two or three thousand" people, as well as "gaining unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemized phone bills [belonging to] Cabinet ministers, MPs, actors and sports stars" has the story pretty much to itself.
On the surface this is surprising. Here, after all, is a story that combines boldface names like Gwyneth Paltrow, Elle MacPherson, Nigella Lawson and George Michael with the official spokesman of the Conservative Party (Andy Coulson, media strategist for Tory leader David Cameron, was editor of the News of the World when the paper allegedly paid private investigators for access to the celebrities’ accounts) and Rupert Murdoch, the world’s most powerful media baron. The BBC put the story at the top of its world news lineup, and followed up the next day with a story about how some of famous targets were contemplating lawsuits. So why has the Guardian‘s incredible scoop turned out to be a 2 day wonder?
Partly, I suspect, precisely because it was a scoop. London has five "quality" papers: The Times (owned by Murdoch), the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mail. No American city has anything to match the cut-throat competition of British journalism, and though papers here are bleeding financially just as badly as those in the US, fighting over a shrinking market has only increased their mutual ferocity. The story was also just complicated enough to need a lot of space–not something most editors want to give to a rival. The hacking part was straightforward, but the story seems to have originated in sealed court documents that formed part of a settlement between the News of the World and its Murdoch tabloid stablemate, the Sun, and the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the soccer players’ union. And while the BBC has every reason to rejoice in any potential embarrassment to Murdoch, owner of its rival Sky, there is no evidence that the Australian billionaire was himself aware of how his underlings were spending his money.
Still, in a society increasingly sensitive to surveillance, but just waking up to the idea that Big Brother may not work for the state after all, this is a story that deserves to run and run. So here’s a suggestion for reporter Nick Davies and his bosses: when it comes time to break the next piece of this puzzle, maybe instead of splashing "exclusive" on the front page you should consider giving part of it away. And if the thought of sharing with one of your direct competitors is too distasteful, you know where to find me.