LONDON — The media throughout the world like to portray themselves as the defender of the public good, a steadfast bulwark against government excess, a fearless watchdog ready to root out criminality.
But what happens when the press goes rogue, when reporters and editors break the law, and violate common decency as well? When reporters hack into a dead girl's phone to hear her messages, pay off police when convenient, and conceal their identifies and use hidden cameras to stage "gotcha" moments?
The British press is in shambles as never before, with the disgraced News of the World tabloid to be shut forever Sunday after being accused of using these corrupt practices in its quest for circulation-boosting scoops.
Britain's randy, rambunctious tabloid press is supposed to be kept in check by the industry-funded Press Complaints Commission, but its investigation into the phone hacking scandal had no teeth, leading Prime Minister David Cameron to call for a whole new system to force newspapers to live up to basic standards.
No one challenges Cameron's assertion that the press commission has failed – it would be hard to defend it at a time when top journalists are being arrested, newsrooms searched and public anger rising – but there is no consensus on how it can be replaced with a regulatory system that really works.
Peta Buscombe, head of the Press Complaints Commission, said it couldn't do its job properly in the phone hacking case, because executives from Rupert Murdoch's News International lied to the commission about the extent of illegal activity at the News of the World – but critics say the fact that editors could deceive the commission with impunity shows how weak the industry self-monitoring system has become.
"The problem is a newspaper proprietor can get away with lying to the PCC, which is owned by newspaper companies," said Ian Hargreaves, former journalism director at the University of Cardiff and now a digital economics professor there. "It doesn't command public confidence."
He said the PCC, which replaced an earlier, even weaker self-regulatory group called the Press Council, is fatally flawed because it has no real investigative powers. He said a new, stronger version of the PCC may emerge from the current inquiries if newspaper owners desperate to avoid government-imposed regulations can convince the government the new agency would actually be strong enough to prevent – and punish – future press abuses.
A second option, he said, is the creation of a taxpayer-funded statutory agency with its mandate and powers defined by law, which would give it real power. That is the model used for the agency that successfully enforces advertising standards, he said, admitting that the ad world is easier to monitor than the unruly national newspapers. Or there could be a hybrid of the two systems.
The most unlikely scenario, he and other experts said, would be for the government to directly impose its own regulatory rules on newspapers.
That would be unconstitutional in the United States, where the First Amendment prohibits Congress from enacting legislation that would hamper the media, but there is no legal barrier in Britain, which does not have a written constitution.
Still, experts say there is a strong tradition of an independent media that would make Parliament very reluctant to unilaterally dictate press regulations and laws. British leaders have often criticized foreign leaders for taking this step, which is seen as muzzling a free press.
"The trouble with a government board is it takes us back to the 19th Century, with the licensing of newspapers," said media analyst and journalism professor Roy Greenslade, who has written extensively about the current media breakdown. "That would be a terrible problem, especially when so much news is now transmitted outside traditional newspapers. We'd all be using personal blogs to get stories out, and the bloggers would be outside the regulations."
Cameron seemed to rule out the government agency concept Friday when he said the new oversight agency must be independent of both the government and the newspaper industry. He said the relationship between the two has been too cozy and must be reformed.
Britain has tried since World War II to come up with an effective way to keep the press in line, but so far nothing has been consistently effective. The current system relies on the PCC enforcing an "editor's code of practice" that, for example, prohibits the use of concealed cameras and voice recorders, but says exceptions can be made if an editor can demonstrate it was in the public interest to use them.
Public interest is broadly defined in the code as including, but not limited to, stories that expose serious crime or wrongdoing; protect public health and safety, and prevent the public from being misled by an individual or organization.
Tony Pederson, a Southern Methodist University journalism professor who teaches students about the British media, said most regulatory systems fall short. But he said an informal, market-driven system seems to have worked in the News of the World case since the paper was shut down after losing the support of advertisers wanting to distance themselves from the paper.
"That's what's supposed to happen," he said. "I would argue the self-regulatory system worked. But in terms of government regulation, the chances of getting it right are very slim. I can't imagine a scenario under which it might be productive."
He also said it is wrong to overlook the quality of some British tabloid journalism. When he brings American students to London each summer for journalism courses, they are usually impressed by some of the tabloids – once they get past the shock of the topless Page Three girls in The Sun, another Murdoch title.
"The U.K. tabloids are extremely aggressive, sexually charged in their approach, but there is also very good political reporting and the editorial pages are very well read, usually conservative and populist," he said. "It's aggressive celebrity sex journalism mixed with very solid reporting."
This editorial mix has helped make British tabloids huge sellers – the weekly News of the World was selling about 2.7 million copies each Sunday when its closure was announced – and gives them political influence that has made leading politicians reluctant to challenge them with regulations. When former Prime Minister Tony Blair ended 18 years of Conservative Party rule in 1997, for example, many analysts said his successful courtship of the Murdoch papers played an important role in his victory.
Media analyst Claire Enders said the print media is notoriously hard to regulate. But she said newspapers will now face tougher regulation, because so much wrongdoing has been exposed.
"There will probably come out of it a much stricter code of conduct and an explicit sanction against companies that breach the human rights or civil rights of victims or anybody who's in the frame," she said.
That could mean newspapers would have to adhere to codes set out in the stringent European Convention on Human Rights and face penalties when rights were violated.
"I don't think the specter of a different form of regulation is a welcome one for the press as a whole," Enders said. "It's very difficult to pursue investigations with alacrity while perusing a legal code to be sure you're minding your Ps and Qs."