, Salem, MA


December 18, 2012

Watson: British press scandal a warning for readers, journalists

For about 16 months in England, an extensive judicial inquiry has examined the quality and behavior of the press there. Led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the high-profile investigation culminated two weeks ago with the release of a report almost 2,000 pages in length.

The document, which catalogs the strengths and weaknesses of the press, and contains dozens of recommendations for improving it, has been almost unanimously lauded. Only its recommendation for possible legislative action to further regulate the press has divided observers.

Much of England’s press — to an extent much greater than America’s — is an unruly, uncouth, outrageous affair. Britain has a high proportion of prominent tabloids, and they are sometimes snooping, lying, destructive papers.

A “tabloid” paper is one that opens like a magazine, has no horizontal fold in the middle, and is physically smaller than a more traditional “broadsheet” paper. Its stories are generally short. The Boston Herald, for example, is a tabloid, while The Salem News is a broadsheet. The tabloid format is often the choice for papers that are less serious and more obviously intended to be entertaining or titillating.

The Leveson inquiry was initiated by Prime Minister David Cameron after a long stint of appalling press behavior. Perhaps the most infamous malfeasance was the phone-hacking conducted by the News of the World, Britain’s biggest tabloid. In 2006, the paper was found to have illegally hacked into the voice mails of the royal family. In 2009, it was discovered that the paper had also wrongly accessed the voice mails of roughly 4,000 other people, including politicians, celebrities, murder victims, and possibly veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The paper — once with a circulation of 2.7 million — was forced to close, and a number of its editors were arrested.

Many other papers, including The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Star, and the Daily Sport, were found to be operating with unreliable integrity and ethics. Some papers were found to be literally fabricating stories, or smearing people, or accusing innocent people of egregious behavior.

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