UK phone hacking: Would the US press do this?
The UK phone hacking scandal just brought down the Murdoch tabloid The News of the World. Is the UK press culture going to change?
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Even when it comes to the so-called quality press, the self-imposed rules are little looser on that side of the pond. The line between fact and opinion is blurrier, and investigative reporters frequently go undercover there. While that happens sometimes in the US, it's generally frowned upon. When I trained as a reporter, I was told to never tell anything but the truth about my identity and my employer. The reason is that credibility is all we have, and once you've proven to be a liar, even in a good cause, you've put that credibility at risk.Skip to next paragraph
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But deception can generates scoops. Sometimes great ones that expose corrupt business practices, other times, as with the tabloids, yielding titillation and gossip (in 2005, a News of the World reporter posed as a rich Arab to dupe a member of the royal family to spill family gossip). As a consequence, the British press writ large is brasher, brassier and, well, more fun than in America.
In the case of the tabloids, it has also yielded a culture that verges on the predatory.
In 2003, shortly after leaving the News of the World to take over sister Murdoch tabloid, The Sun, Brooks told a parliamentary hearing on press practices that "we have paid police for information in the past."
"We operate within the code and within the law and if there's a clear public interest ... the same holds for private detectives, for subterfuge, for video ... for whatever you want to talk about," Mr. Coulson said. He went on to work as British Prime Minister David Cameron's director of communications, a post he's since left.
I'm no lawyer. But bribing a policemen is certainly illegal in the US. British law is an odd mix. As a question of press practices, it's also troubling. Reporters don't pay for things that are easily had for free. They want juice, dirt, secrets. Once someone is being paid for that kind of thing, there's a huge incentive to simply make up the most salacious story possible.
Some think the public outrage at what's been revealed so far (not to mention the hit Murdoch is taking to his bottom line) could lead to real change in the UK press. The Times of London (one of Murdoch's quality papers) writes today that "this is a watershed moment for British journalism."
In our story yesterday on the scandal, Dominic Ponsford of the UK's Press Gazette told reporter Nathalie Rothschild, "I think, now, press owners will argue that phone hacking is a historic problem that was stamped out in 2007 and there is very little evidence it has happened since then. But in order for the press to restore public trust it’s going need to show that it’s taking strong action to get its house in order.”
The first, stunning step was the closure of the paper.
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