The United States and Britain are said to be two countries separated by a common language. This week, amid a phone-hacking scandal rocking Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, it is also clear that the two countries also are separated by very different news media. Both cover the news and, sometimes, raise a ruckus. But what’s acceptable (or at least tolerated) among reporters in Britain would be considered shocking here.
England has its upmarket or “quality” media (the BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Times, among others), whose ethics, rigor and accuracy resemble those of a typical American news organization: flawed, but determined to be as accurate as possible.
But Britain’s storied and fiercely competitive “red tops,” the red-flagged tabloids, dominate daily newspaper circulation with heaping servings of crime, celebrity, sports and titillation. The tabloid Sun, owned by Murdoch’s News Corp., features a daily photo of a topless “Page 3 Girl.”
There’s no precise equivalent in the United States. New York has a pair of feisty tabloids in the Daily News and Murdoch’s New York Post. Both are popular on newsstands, but their circulation is in a single city, unlike the nationally distributed British tabs. The Post’s circulation is 522,000; the Sun sells 2.8 million copies a day. The New York tabs are decidedly sensational, but neither features bare-breasted women or quite the flow of lurid excess of their British cousins.
Few people in Britain were entirely surprised to learn of the phone-hacking scandal when it first emerged in 2005, or that it was the work of the Murdoch-owned Sunday tabloid News of the World, a paper with a long history of colorful rogues, stunts and shocking stories (many of which have turned out to be true).
After all, the British tabloids and their readers feasted on intercepted phone conversations involving members of the royal family during the 1990s. Among these were the famous dueling leaks of illicitly recorded calls between Princess Diana and a male friend, and Prince Charles and his then-mistress (now wife) Camilla Parker Bowles.
The British public wasn’t really roused about the News’s phone hacks of celebrities, politicians and sports stars until last week, when the Guardian reported that the paper’s dirty digging may have involved thousands of ordinary people, including a missing girl later found slain.
Until it closed in shame last week, the News of the World employed one of Britain’s most colorful and controversial reporters, Mazher Mahmood, whose penchant for disguises has earned him the nickname “the Fake Sheikh.” Mahmood’s specialty is the Fleet Street sting. Last year, he dressed up as an Arab businessman and pretended to offer Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson more than $700,000 in exchange for access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew. Ferguson was secretly filmed offering to “open any door you want” in exchange for the cash.