Britain once more eyes regulating its press

LONDON—The idea of “regulating” the news media plays quite differently on the two sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S. it’s unthinkable: Press regulation of any sort would inevitably trample sacred freedoms and unleash state apparatchiks to badger and stifle the media.

But in Britain the notion that news media need grownup supervision is widely held and periodically attempted. Since the early 1950s, under perpetual threat that Parliament might act, the news industry has created voluntary entities to handle complaints and offer redress for people who were slimed, bullied, or otherwise, as they say here, rubbished.

Self-regulation hasn’t worked so well. The current cop, the Press Complaints Commission, was hatched 20 years ago after a rash of press abuses in the late ‘80s. A minister admonished the media then they were “drinking in the last-chance saloon” and further misconduct would bring new laws.

So to today’s phone-hacking scandal, universally cited as the spawn of toothless self-regulation. The scandal’s initial focus was on years of surveillance and bribery by Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid.

In its wake came arrests and Parliamentary hearings into broader practices among Britain’s hypercompetitive press, led by 10 dailies—with another half-dozen titles on Sundays—all vying for a national market and “fighting like ferrets in a sack for readers and for survival,” as London journalism professor Steven Barnett put it in a recent paper for the Organization of News Ombudsmen’s annual conference in Copenhagen.

What, if anything, should be done may depend now on the recommendations of a senior judge, Sir Brian Leveson, appointed by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to lead a sweeping inquiry into the “culture, practice and ethics of the press.”

The Leveson Inquiry opened in July and uncorked a flood of tales from Continue reading “Britain once more eyes regulating its press”

Blunder on the right

Watershed moments don’t announce themselves, and they’re not easy to spot in the flickering news of the day. But I think in recent weeks something of historic importance has been happening to the U.S. right-wing media establishment: It’s in trouble.

Consider first the continuing scandal enveloping the Rupert Murdoch dynasty. Their giant News Corp. owns two key conservative organs: The Wall Street Journal—whose editorialists are among the most influential ideological forces on the right—and Fox News, which pioneered the reinvention of cable news as a partisan mosh pit.

Second is the broad outrage over some unusually vile utterances by the movement’s biggest media star, Rush Limbaugh, which is shaking his unrivaled, decade-long dominance of talk radio.

And third is the passing of Andrew Breitbart, 43, who in his brief career as an online provocateur had become a leading right-wing media celebrity, but whose death notices couldn’t help but recall that his notoriety rested on stunts that were deceitful and cruel, when not downright fraudulent. Continue reading “Blunder on the right”

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: Continue reading “Behaving badly is a British media tradition”