Phone-hacking scandal highlights the differences in British, U.S. media

July 14, 2011

Long before British journalists allegedly began prying into the phone accounts of hundreds of people, some of them were employing other eyebrow-raising methods to produce their stories.

Like adopting disguises to trick celebrities into headline-grabbing behavior. Or offering cash payments for gossip and news. And entrapping politicians and others with elaborate “sting” operations.

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.

In 2003, Mahmood exposed an alleged plot to kidnap former Spice Girls member Victoria Beckham, but his role was criticized after a court case against the plotters collapsed amid revelations that Mahmood’s key informant had received more than $14,000 from the News of the World for his story.

The News also paid prostitutes to entrap Max Mosley, the head of the Formula One race circuit, in 2008. The subsequent legal case centered on whether it was proper to call it a “Nazi orgy,” as the News did, not whether it was permissible to pay prostitutes to film Mosley.

While not unknown in the United States, such tactics are considered an ethical violation by most journalists. In Britain, there’s a view that the ends justifies the means, said Mary Dejevsky, a columnist at the Independent newspaper, in an e-mail interview.

“In all these cases, the journalists would be free to cite the public interest defense, that the benefits of making the information public outweighed the suspect means used,” she said. Other than the phone hacking, Dejevsky called this “a legitimate defense in many circumstances . . . both under the law and under the press code.”

The Telegraph, considered one of Britain’s respectable upmarket papers, did its own sting of sorts last year when it sent two female reporters to meet a government official, Vince Cable, who was in charge of reviewing Murdoch’s bid to purchase British Sky Broadcasting Corp. The reporters never identified themselves as such — an ethically dubious practice in the United States — and elicited some intemperate comments from Cable. The subsequent stories led to Cable’s removal from the review.

“British journalism in general is more scurrilous and partisan” than the American kind, observed Laura Beers, a professor of British history at American University. “It has a culture of expose.”

And, sex. From its beginning in 1843, the News of the World had sex stories, often accounts culled from court documents of divorce proceedings. This meant that the tabs “became hooked on what is most fascinating to most people — other peoples’ sexual escapades — and have put it at the center of their business model,” said John Lloyd, a director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Beers said the British have a more class-stratified model than the American media — “down-market” papers for the working class, with middle and “up-market” media, too. As a rule, too, she said, it has developed a more reflexively aggressive posture toward power.

“Essentially, American journalism is an attempt to be fair and balanced,” Beers said. “The [American] media repeat what a politician says without much critical analysis. The British tend to view the official line with hostility. From that you get a much more adversarial relationship and a bigger dose of opinion. There’s a naked acknowledgment that opinion is at the forefront of what they do.”

None of this, of course, is to suggest that the American model is inherently superior. British journalists like to point out our flaws, too — from various fabrication and plagiarism outrages to Dan Rather’s flawed report about President George W. Bush’s military service to Judith Miller’s unquestioning stories in the New York Times about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

“It seems to me that U.S. journalism is vulnerable in a different way — invention on the one hand, and in hock to political interests, on the other,” Dejevsky said. “Your [scandals] are no less corrosive and in some ways simply worse than anything that has happened in the U.K. British journalism is politicized in a different way, but it’s upfront and expected.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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