Behaving badly is a British media tradition


The phone-hacking scandal in Britain, after slowly gathering steam for at least five years, has exploded into a rich and fast-moving media spectacle.

There’s so much: unscrupulous journalists who pillaged the personal communications of thousands of people looking for dirt; payoffs and hush money to keep the outrage quiet;  wide-ranging public corruption involving bribes to officials in return for leaks of confidential data; regulatory sloth and high-level indifference, and above all, the fate of the world’s leading media empire, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., whose top-circulating British tabloid, The News of the World, has been shuttered, whose London boss has been arrested, and whose $12 billion plan to take over a lushly profitable UK satellite broadcaster has collapsed.

The temptation is keen to look for lessons to apply in this country, where Murdoch’s footprint—The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Fox News and the Fox entertainment juggernaut—is wide, and he has stepped hard on many toes. Last week the FBI announced a probe into whether the phones of 9/11 victims had been hacked.

Whether News Corp. has a rancid culture of its own here remains to be seen. But before the wrong lessons are applied here, it’s worth remembering how different journalism is on that side of the Atlantic. Consider this:

In February 2010, the ex-editor of News of the World, Andy Coulson, was in line to become spokesman to Conservative leader David Cameron if Cameron became prime minister.  There had been steady disclosures about wrongdoing under Coulson’s editorship, but he claimed to know nothing. The Guardian newspaper, however, which has led in exposing illegal and despicable practices at his paper, had learned about a private investigator who was rehired there under Coulson. This PI had served seven years in prison for planting cocaine on an innocent woman, and was awaiting trial over the axe murder of an ex-partner.

A disreputable guy. Now, the Guardian knew far more about him than it could publish, since British rules sharply limit reporting on pending cases. So a Guardian editor approached an aide to Cameron and told him what the paper knew and what it suggested about Coulson’s truthfulness. Cameron made Coulson his spokesman anyway, a job Coulson was forced to leave in January as the hacking scandal grew; now he has been arrested.

Now, in this country, the Guardian’s effort would be a mini-scandal. Imagine if the Washington Post approached the White House quietly to convince the administration not to fill a senior position with somebody the Post had decided, based on information it couldn’t publish, was ethically unsuited for the job. And then, once the appointment turned out to be a disaster, the Post’s top editor went public and criticized the president for poor judgment.

That sort of private lobbying in Washington would be denounced as incompatible with the paper’s public responsibilities. That it’s acceptable, even praiseworthy, in London says something important about the uniquely British brew of cronyism and adversarialism that characterizes the relationship there between the press and the powerful.

Indeed, there’s much about the hacking scandal that makes sense only in a British context, and before the press-bashers in this country reach for ammunition there they should be reminded of how wide the ocean really is. 

British journalism is brasher, more rambunctious, and far less reverential than its U.S. cousin. Journalists here are seen as well-intentioned but compliant, Boy Scouts who don’t mind helping an old lady cross the street but only after they’ve gotten permission. Keyhole-peeping, disguises, conning sources out of information, cash for news, remained part of the reporter’s toolkit in Britain long after they became firing offenses here.

Too, in the tabloids that serve the vast majority of the news audience is a strong current of class-based pandering, a free-floating anger aimed at the swells, their trappings and their hypocrisy, a hankering to see the toffs taken down a peg, exposed, shamed and ridiculed. Tabloid culture arose as the populist vengeance on the hyper-literate broadsheets that were closely, even incestuously allied to one political elite or the other.

That aggressiveness in news gathering, paradoxically, arose in an environment of official secrecy that would be intolerable here. The British government is empowered to outlaw publication of articles it deems harmful. Courts bar reporting on pending cases, and can impose superinjunctions—gag orders that prohibit litigants from even saying they’ve been gagged.

Hence, some people get to keep their secrets, but not everybody. Privacy rights mean something different there. British streets are under surveillance. As of 2006, it was estimated that the country had some 4.2 million cameras, one for every 14 people. If the tabloid hacks showed alarming indifference to personal privacy, they’re in good company.

With an election cycle beginning here, don’t be surprised to hear desperate office-seekers use the British scandal to discredit our media and ward off the scrutiny they deserve. They don’t know how easy they’ve got it.


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One Response

  1. Interestingly, the BBC was created (by a Conservative government) in 1922 as a counterweight to the commercial (aka downmarket) tendencies of Fleet Street. It was supposed to be an example of unabashedly elite culture, delivered in “standard” (aka Home County) English. But as British media democratized, so did the BBC. It still provides high quality news, information and cultural programs. But it also produces content that is pure tabloid and often offensive (some elements of Radio 1 and to a lesser extent Radio 2).
    Does this mean that government intervention in the marketplace has been a failure? I don’t think so. The pull of the marketplace is powerful and the tabloid tendencies in all media can never be stopped entirely. Nor should it. Class structure being what they are, it’s impossible to have one medium that has universal appeal. Especially now in this fragmented and disintermediated environment. The Brits will restore the balance as they see fit. And there will be some lessons for us on this side of the Atlantic. But more revelations about shoddy practices in all media – UK and North American – are bound to emerge. Stay tuned.

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