Don’t let the response to News of the World go too far

July 16, 2011

THE PRESS SCANDAL that has convulsed the British political establishment this month is first of all about the criminal acts of a tabloid newspaper, News of the World, which hacked the private telephones of celebrities, politicians and — most revoltingly — crime victims, including a teenage girl who had been murdered. Though contemptible, such excesses by tabloids are hardly new, in Britain or other countries. But because News of the World forms part of the multinational media empire headed by Rupert Murdoch, the affair has touched off a larger backlash against what is regarded as the excessive power of his News Corp., particularly in Britain.

Two prime ministers who formerly courted Mr. Murdoch, Gordon Brown and incumbent David Cameron, have dramatically turned against him. Mr. Brown, who believes his family medical and bank records were illicitly obtained by the paper, accused the Murdoch enterprises of “lawbreaking on an industrial scale.” Mr. Cameron, who hired the former editor of News of the World as his press secretary, announced an official investigation into press practices and suggested he might support government regulation.

Mr. Murdoch has already been obliged to shut News of the World and to drop News Corp.’s bid to obtain full control of British satellite broadcaster BSkyB. Nine people have been arrested in connection with the hacking cases, and on Friday two of Mr. Murdoch’s closest collaborators — Rebekah Brooks, who headed the British newspaper division, and Dow Jones chief executive Les Hinton — announced their resignations. It remains to be seen whether News Corp.’s U.S. properties, which include the Fox network as well as Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, will be further affected. At the request of several members of Congress, the FBI is investigating charges that News of the World may have tried to gain access to the phones of Sept. 11 victims and their families.

It goes without saying that law enforcement on both sides of the Atlantic should aggressively pursue any evidence of criminal conduct — and investigators must determine why British police failed to pursue evidence of phone hacking after an initial case four years ago. Though News Corp. will suffer, Britain may benefit from its failure to take control of BSkyB and an overall diminution of its influence. More so than in the United States, concentration of media ownership in Britain — where News Corp. controlled some 40 percent of newspaper circulation — is a concern.

It would be easy, however, for the reaction to the scandal to go too far, driven by the long-standing antipathy among the media and political left for Mr. Murdoch and his rightward-leaning organs. Calls by some Democrats in Congress for the Justice Department to investigate News Corp. for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for example, are premature at best; Britain has good bribery laws and is perfectly capable of following up allegations of payoffs to its police or others.

Similarly, suggestions that Britain should replace the newspaper industry’s self-regulatory body with official regulation are misguided and dangerous. Britain’s biggest media problem is not too much freedom but too little: Onerous libel laws deter critical reporting about public figures and arguably drive journalists to measures such as phone hacking to obtain lawsuit-proof stories. That’s obviously no excuse for the inexcusable. But once they are done flaying Mr. Murdoch, the country’s political leaders would do well to address that larger issue too.

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