Feature

United Kingdom: Tabloid journalism gone wild

Are the Guardian, the BBC, and The Labor Party milking the scandal over the sleazy reporting tactics of Rupert Murdoch's <em>News of the World</em>?

A newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch used “criminal methods” to get stories, said Nick Davies in the London Guardian. Reporters for the tabloid News of the World hired private investigators to hack into the voice mail of thousands of public figures, including members of Parliament, actors, and athletes. Murdoch’s company paid out more than $1.5 million to settle lawsuits from three of the victims. The payments were intended to guarantee that the newspaper’s sleazy reporting tactics—which included “gaining unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements, and itemized phone bills”—were never made public. But the Guardian has seen the “suppressed evidence,” and we predict that now “hundreds more legal actions” may be filed against the News.

What a lot of self-serving bunk, said The News of the World in an editorial. The Guardian’s bogus exposé is “inaccurate, selective, and purposely misleading.” The Guardian has now run more than a dozen articles on this case, blowing it entirely out of proportion. The truth is that a few years ago, one of our former reporters and one private investigator did illegally tap phones, and in 2006 they went to prison for those crimes. Since then, no new evidence has come to light, and this week police said they would not reopen their investigation. The Guardian’s only scoop was its report of our out-of-court settlement. Why is this non-story getting so much ink?

In a word, politics, said Stephen Glover in the London Independent. The BBC, which has also been relentlessly covering the News of the World scandal, has long been at war with Murdoch. Murdoch’s British newspapers—which include the Times and Sunday Times as well as the News—are always bashing the BBC, complaining that it is far too left wing and a waste of taxpayers’ money. “This was payback time.” Based on the BBC coverage, “it was as though the old rogue had himself tapped all our mobile phones”—even though there is no evidence he even knew of, much less ordered, the hacking.

The BBC wasn’t the only one to milk the scandal for its own purposes, said the London Sunday Times. The Labor Party used the story to bash Andy Coulson, who was News of the World’s editor when the phone hacking occurred and is now the communications director for the head of the Conservative Party. “By attacking him, they can attack the Tory leader.” This also has been a godsend for members of Parliament who are still reeling from embarrassing press revelations of their expense-account abuses. “Now they have a chance to have a go at the press in general, and they have seized it with relish.” They are even talking of passing a privacy law that would impose new curbs on the press.

That would be a huge mistake, said Martin Ivens in the London Times. It may be tempting to rein in the tabloids with new restrictions. But hacking cell phones was always against the law. We don’t need new regulations to guard against such crimes. Besides, British newspapers are “already shackled by some of the most ferocious libel laws in the Free World.” Adding “more restraints” to the tabloids would constrain the reputable papers, too—and that would be bad for our democracy.

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