Butterflying Phelps is just latest celebrity scalp for 'News of the World'

What's black and white and read by more Britons than any other newspaper?

Forget well-respected names like The Independent, Guardian, or The Times. News of the World, with its weekly offering of showbiz gossip, topless models, and sport draws some 3 million readers, making it the most widely read Sunday newspaper in the United Kingdom.

Its calling card has been the type of "gotcha" exclusives that the paper broke Sunday by publishing a photograph of US Olympic swimming sensation Michael Phelps smoking a marijuana water pipe at a student party.

Owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, its reporters regularly hand over large sums of money to secure the right scoop – be it embarrassing pictures or titillating "kiss and tell" interviews with jilted lovers - and the Phelps picture is likely to have been worth tens of thousands of dollars if money changed hands, media watchers say. The paper proudly proclaims its desire to pay for such items, with a prominent tab on its homepage that offers "BIG money for BIG exclusives."

Covert surveillance has also been part and parcel of the paper’s armory, a fact that exploded in its own face in 2007 when its chief royal correspondent was jailed for four months for plotting to intercept telephone voicemail messages left for aides to Britain’s Royal Family. More recently, it has been licking its wounds after losing a high-profile libel action taken by the head of Formula One motorsport’s governing body over claims of Nazi overtones at a salacious party. Recently, commentators have detected attempts by the paper to clean up its act by widening its coverage to focus on stories such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and misconduct by British troops.

Either way, it retains a huge influence, says Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette, which covers the British media industry.

"Very often you will have leading British politicians writing guest articles for the News of the World,” Mr. Ponsford says. “In a very fragmented world, it will still have 6, 7, or 8 million readers each week and there are few mediums which can deliver that.”

The Phelps exclusive has proved to be a clean "hit" – causing the sportsman to issue a speedy apology, and resulting in more high-brow news organizations across the world following up on the story. The episode echoes another tabloid gotcha that ended up driving "serious" news cycles: In July, The National Enquirer broke the story of then-presidential candidate John Edwards's affair. The rest of the press soon followed.

Phelps isn't the only high-profile name to have been associated with cannabis possession over the weekend. President Barack Obama's half-brother, George, was arrested in Nairobi on drug charges. The president and George Obama share the same father, but are believed to have met each other only once.

Although Phelps has already issued an apology, the issue is sure to dog his career. The Monitor's four-part series last year on doping in sports might offer Phelps some tips on moving forward. While his infraction involved so-called recreational rather than performance drugs, he could gain insights on the World Anti-Doping Agency's complex rules from attorney Howard Jacobs, who has defended accused dopers from Marion Jones to swimmer Jessica Hardy.

And Phelps should also realize that it's possible to overcome a bad rap. Scottish cyclist David Millar was banned from his sport for two years for doping (though not the same "dope" that is now associated with Phelps), but he returned to the sport to compete on a team that's pioneering a new drug-testing model.

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