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Shining a Light on Britain's "Gutter Press"

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These are dark days for the British tabloids. Having operated like a kind of Mafia for years, the tabloids are now in the dock and their unscrupulous conduct is being scrutinized. An official inquiry led by high court judge Sir Brian Leveson is probing the conduct of the "gutter press," that includes blackmailing politicians and celebrities, hacking into cell phones of vulnerable crime victims, bribing police for salacious information, and paying informants for intimate and embarrassing revelations about prominent figures. The inquest is exposing a tabloid culture run amok, in which investigators, reporters, and photographers for decades engaged in massive intrusions into the private lives of thousands of people, destroyed reputations and ruined careers, while because of the cowardice of the British government, it failed to reign in these excesses. In effect, the tabloids had a virtual "license to kill" -- small wonder that several of their victims committed suicide.

The inquest is proving (as if we didn't know it already) that in the ugly world of screaming headlines and incendiary revelations, that truth, ethics, and integrity are irrelevant and, indeed, mocked. The test is not whether the story is true and its publication is in the public interest; the test, according to former editor of the Rupert Murdock-owned Sun David Yelland, is whether the story, regardless of its truth, "stood up." And as for the "public interest," the former features editor for Murdoch's now defunct News of the World Paul McMullan, told the Leveson inquiry that "the public interest is what the public is interested in." And, he went on to a stunned audience, "phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool," and the editors of tabloids who authorized hacking are "heroes of journalism." But don't tell that to the parents of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, whose cell phone was hacked into by a private investigator for News of the World. That investigator deleted messages on the phone to make room for more messages that he could hack into, so that when Milly's parents called their daughter's cell phone and found that messages had been deleted, they cried in elation that "she's alive."

Heroes of journalism? Consider the conduct of the gutter press in connection with the grisly murder of Joanna Yeates last year, which involved one of the largest police manhunts in British history and dominated news coverage far more extensively than the Casey Anthony case did in the United States. The tabloids had a banner day when Yeates's landlord, Christopher Jefferies, was arrested, and, in violation of British laws, published over 40 defamatory stories linking him to the murder. Jefferies was innocent, the police released him, and two of the tabloids, the Sun and Daily Mirror, were found guilty of contempt of court for reporting information that could have prejudiced a trial.

One of the perplexing questions is how the tabloids were able to operate for so long and engage in lawless conduct with impunity in a legal system that is far less hospitable to free speech and free press than that of the United States. The First Amendment gives extraordinary protections to the U.S. press: the press can almost never be stopped from publishing the news, is allowed to publish prejudicial stories about persons charged with crimes and about to stand trial, and are afforded extremely broad protection from being sued for libel. The United Kingdom, by contrast, does not have a First Amendment, and speech and press are heavily regulated. Indeed, in stark contrast to the United States press, the British press can be stopped from publishing information the government deems unsuitable, can be punished for publishing information that might prejudice a future criminal trial, and can be sued far more liberally by victims of libel, defamation, and invasions of privacy.

I can suggest several reasons that might explain the ability of the tabloids to operate for so many years without fear of being held accountable for their misconduct. In a popular culture that revels in salacious and revolting gossip about famous people, or craves information about despicable crimes and criminals, the tabloids give the public what it wants and thus enjoy a massive readership that earns huge profits. Nor is it surprising that the tabloids flourished without government regulation, restriction, or even criticism. Indeed, there was a symbiosis of sorts. The Murdoch publishing empire appears to have held a tight fist over successive British governments. Indeed, nobody was surprised when current Prime Minister David Cameron hired as his communications director Andy Coulson, the editor of the News of the World (Coulson described the tabloid's payments to police for secret information as "within the law"), and had it not been for the hacking scandal, Murdoch was poised with the government's blessing to take control of the $12 billion pay-television company British Sky Broadcasting. Moreover, let's not forget the political clout of the tabloids in supporting and attacking politicians, and thereby making these politicians much more subservient to the tabloid's interests. Indeed, it was only at the end of his tenure that Prime Minister Blair described the British media as behaving like a "feral beast."

Also, it is not unreasonable to suggest, and there is evidence to support this, that the massive phone hacking produced embarrassing information not only about celebrities and prominent athletes, but also about government officials (News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks used her tabloid to smear Prime Minister Gordon Brown), and these officials who likely would think twice before criticizing tabloid excesses for fear of retribution. And, of course, in a brazen culture of "checkbook journalism" where truth and ethics don't matter, the tabloids know that persons wronged by their misconduct would be deterred by the amount of time and expense it takes to litigate claims of defamation and invasion of privacy. Anyway, after cashing in on inflammatory headlines, the tabloids could always print a self-serving retraction, probably on the back page.

The Leveson inquiry may propose ways to harness some of the more outrageous tactics of the gutter press. Possible reforms might include making it a crime to publish defamatory stories that are knowingly or recklessly false; punishing the conduct of the "wolf-pack" paparazzi who engage in dangerous mass pursuits of fleeing victims by foot and auto (recall the deadly car chase of Princess Diana, and the recent "wolf pack" pursuit of actress Sienna Miller); making it a crime to "criminally stalk" a person, as the tabloids do regularly; and, perhaps, establishing a special "Privacy Court" where victims could go for legal protection and damages.

To be sure, these are especially dark days for the British tabloids, and shining a light on their conduct is not bad thing.