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?

Matt Dunham/AP
This is a July 6 file photo of a "News of the World" sign, seen by an entrance at the premises of News International in London. James Murdoch, News Corporation executive, says the "News of the World" will publish its last issue on Sunday.

The UK and the US, two countries divided by a common language is how the old saw goes. And just as we often have mutually unintelligible slang, the press cultures on either side of the Atlantic are dramatically different.

That's being brought out by the storm of controversy surrounding The News of the World and its former editor Rebekah Brooks. The Rupert Murdoch tabloid used a private investigator to hack into the cell phone of a missing 13-year-old girl in 2003, listening to the panicked messages of her parents and friends to write stories. The girl was later found dead.

Today, Murdoch's News Corporation announced the 168-year-old paper is shutting in response to the scandal. Murdoch's son James said in a statement "the good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company."

What happened?

The paper also hacked into the cell phones of victims of the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks on the public transit system and paid police officers for information in other cases. The Daily Telegraph reports today that a private investigator on The News of the World payroll had also compiled personal information about British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guardian reports that British police are investigating whether The News of the World distributed $150,000 to a group of police officers in 2003.

Ms. Brooks, now CEO of News International, is facing growing demands that she resign as the head of Mr. Murdoch's UK print operations. Advertisers have been abandoning the tabloid in droves, and the British parliament is gearing up for hearings on new ways to regulate the press.

While the US stereotype is of a staid and stodgy Britain, when it comes to the press we're the dull ones. Our tabloids may be competitive but the UK's are viciously so. They're also a little trashier. The homepage for The News of the World today, for instance, has no fewer than six beautiful women in bikinis or lingerie (yes I counted, glazing over at the paparazzi snapshot of England footballer Frank Lampard's bare bottom. The things I do for this job.) The homepage for The New York Post, Murdoch's flagship American tabloid, has no flesh at all.

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.

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."

Asked if she would do so in the future she started to answer "it depends on ..." before being cut off by Andy Coulson, who replaced her as editor of The News of the World.

"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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