SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 18, 2012

Watson: British press scandal a warning for readers, journalists

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — 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.

The Sun, for example, ran a fabricated story about a Muslim plot to kill prominent British Jews. The Daily Mail ran a false story that actor Steve Coogan was responsible for another actor’s suicide attempt. The Daily Express printed a headline, “Migrants more likely to claim jobless benefit,” even though the study cited established just the opposite.

The Leveson report cataloged a litany of irresponsible journalism, and concluded that the British press has too often been reckless, negligent, unprofessional, criminal, unethical, and bullying. It has operated with disregard for the effects of its activities, both on individual lives and on the public interest.

The report recommends the establishment of a new, independent press monitor. This would not be a government regulator but a private, industry-organized watchdog. Britain’s press had such a monitor, but it had insufficient power to fine or discipline wayward newspapers.

Auspiciously, editors now agree that a new regulator must be more formidable than the old one. They also have a strong incentive to institute this reform, because Britain’s parliament and public are threatening statutory regulation if the press doesn’t create its own real policeman.

It is my strong hope that the industry will create a new, powerful monitor and also improve its own standards. It would be very difficult to write forever-wise regulatory legislation that could take into account all of the realities and sometimes envelope-pushing circumstances of creative, investigative journalism. For there are an infinite variety of circumstances and methods and sources used in the best, most ethical, investigative journalism.

That said, it is a sure thing that some irresponsibility, deliberate distortion, calumny, omission and cravenness will remain in the British press, just as they exist in the American — and every — press.

That is why freedom of the press ultimately is paired best with an educated, savvy public. In a democracy, where the participation of citizens is based partly on the information they gather from the media, readers must be vigilant and knowledgeable about their nation’s papers, radio, TV and the Internet.

The Internet, especially, remains mostly unregulated. Smartphones, YouTube, Twitter and other technologies advance far faster than laws — and even norms — can evolve. A danger with the new, instant media may be that its sheer speed, infinite fragmentation, abuses, hasty reactions, and insufficient contexts may diminish our appetite for patience, complexity, deliberation, moderation and the long view.

The growth of online news will continue; printed papers will shrink. But regardless of where journalism operates, there is no substitute for the profession policing itself so that it offers exemplary standards that citizens can continue to trust. Perhaps more than the government or the private sector, an honest and really intelligent press and a caring and intelligent citizenry are the guarantors of a livable pluralism and a democracy.

---

Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at watson@nii.net.