Britain's tabloid-worthy media scandal

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 15, 2011 - 8:21 PM

The News Corp. newspaper scandal may soon cross the pond, but Britain's journalism culture won't.

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Britain's burgeoning journalism and political scandal -- a "criminal-media nexus," according to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- encapsulates so much about that country that it's like looking through a U.K. kaleidoscope.

At first glance, all the focus is on international communications conglomerate News Corp.'s leaders: Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and newspaper chief Rebekah Brooks, whose Friday resignation made her one of the scandal's latest career casualties.

But rotate the kaleidoscope, and iconic images of institutions that define London come into view: Buckingham Palace, where even the queen was a tabloid target; Parliament, usually riven by divisions, but now united in regret over the leverage Murdoch has had over British politics; No. 10 Downing Street, the home of prime ministers, including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown -- and David Cameron, who reportedly courted Australian-turned-American Murdoch more than the average Brit; and Scotland Yard, where Andy Coulson, former editor of News Corp.'s News of the World tabloid and former Cameron communication chief, was booked, and also where some detectives allegedly took bribes from tabloid editors.

Peer again and there's Piers Morgan, now with CNN but formerly with the paper at the scandal's center, News of the World. The celebrity journalist became as famous as some of the stars he interviewed, including Hugh Grant and Gwyneth Paltrow, who along with other pop-culture royalty -- as well as some members of the real royal family -- were the first known targets of cell phone hacking.

Yet it took a twist in this cultural kaleidoscope to reveal a new face of the scandal, one that would no longer allow Brits to adhere to the admonition to "Keep Calm and Carry On."

Milly Dowler was a 13-year-old schoolgirl, and about as far removed from Fleet Street's media elite and the other cozy intersections of Britain's celebrity and political culture as one could get. When she was kidnapped and killed in 2002, News of the World journalists allegedly hacked into her cell phone and deleted messages, giving authorities, and her family, hope that she was alive.

This revelation repelled Britons grown complacent toward the full contact sport of British media. The resulting firestorm singed even the savvy Cameron, who has pledged two investigations. And it engulfed News Corp., which cried "Stop the presses!" for real when it closed News of the World -- Britain's best-selling newspaper -- on just three days' notice.

A chastened James Murdoch admitted that the company had "failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoings that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose."

But if he thought that unprecedented concession would work, it was just his latest miscalculation. Instead, it only seemed to intensify anger, as it was seen for what is was: A cynical ploy to placate Parliament enough to let Murdoch purchase the portion of cable TV provider BSkyB he didn't already own. On Wednesday, Murdoch recalibrated and retreated on BSkyB.

The scandal isn't over, however, and may have a new flashpoint when a testy Parliament asks for testimony next week from both Murdochs.

Parliament and Scotland Yard may be a warm-up act for Congress and the FBI, which want to investigate allegations of hacking into the cell phones of 9/11 victims.

So the journalism scandal may soon cross the pond. Could the reckless style of journalism do the same?

Not likely, considering the differences between the two countries' social, political and media models.

Compared to U.S. newspapers, some in the U.K. have "transformed into common practice law-breaking, unethical, immoral, news-gathering processes," said Michele Weldon, assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern's Medill School, and author of "Everyman News: The Changing American Front Page."

"What we call horse-race news -- trying to be first -- they have upped the ante exponentially to Russian Roulette journalism, where there are no holds barred, and there is nothing that is off the table as far as the way to gather information."

But, Weldon added, "There's a dichotomy of highbrow and lowbrow news. ... There has always been a dual nature to the journalism there, where there's this really naughty, insider kind of journalism, and there's this highbrow, investigative, well-written, well-respected, vetted journalism. And the newspapers there seem to straddle both worlds regularly."

British society straddles these worlds, too, according to Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota.

"Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times of London who writes for the Guardian, told me 'in Britain you really can tell who someone is by the newspaper they have under their arm -- you're a Telegraph man, or a Guardian woman.' A lot of this is class and politically driven."

U.S. newspapers, including the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, generally don't straddle this divide, and instead rely on an objective news model that's as much a marketing construct as a journalistic one.

"It has more to do with business models," said Michael Shudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia University. "I don't think there is anything to keep us from being interested in cheesecake photos," he joked, referring to "Page Three Girls" who pose topless in the tabloid Sun, also owned by Murdoch. Rather, it's "what advertisers will support and what kind of business model will make a style of news work."

Another decided difference is the partisan partitioning of U.K. newspapers, which involves not just the editorial pages but also news coverage. A partisan press existed in America for much of the 19th century, said Shudson, but the Progressive Era made many Americans distrustful of political parties, which is a sentiment that's only grown stronger. Conversely, "People aren't ashamed of partisan loyalty in London," Shudson said.

Up until now, the British haven't seemed overly ashamed of tabloid tactics, either. Or if they were, they were too afraid of the press to say so.

Kirtley describes a mid-1990s British commission that considered enacting privacy laws.

"The lack of privacy laws have contributed to the tabloid journalism culture because many activities that would be illegal in this country are not in Great Britain," she said. "They issued a report on it, Parliament was poised to act, and then it was what has always happened on this issue: The journalists get to work, particularly the tabloids, they find skeletons in the closet of parliamentarians, they break a big scandal, and that's the end of the privacy laws, because it becomes 'you see, the only reason you want a privacy law is to cover up your scandalous behavior.'"

But for all that, the most important difference between the English and American newspaper culture is the genius of the First Amendment, a product of the original division between England and America.

"If Parliament wanted to, they could enact truly draconian laws and it could absolutely emasculate the newspapers in Britain," Kirtley said in comparing the two systems.

"The fact of the matter is that they have nothing comparable to the First Amendment. If for that reason and no other, our system is better."

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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