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British tabloids' tactics may spur soul-searching

The dodgy, sometimes illegal, ploys used to ferret out salacious information on celebrities and politicians fed a readership of 7 million. Some argue that introspection is in order for a society that lapped up such gossip with little thought to how it was acquired.

July 17, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • A man in London reads the last issue of the News of the World, the weekly tabloid that was shut down last week by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. amid the growing phone-hacking scandal.
A man in London reads the last issue of the News of the World, the weekly tabloid… (Simon Dawson, Bloomberg )

Reporting from London — What others might call lying, Paul McMullan calls a brilliant maneuver.

Looking for the goods on a philandering actor, the tabloid reporter hired a private investigator to make a phone call to the actor's hotel posing as his accountant and persuade the front desk to fax over his room bill, which included a list of all the calls he'd made.

McMullan, who at the time was working for the late, lamentable News of the World, then dialed every number on the list until he got the actor's mistress on the line — and his scoop.

"If you're in pursuit of a story, you don't just go up to someone and say, 'Hello, I work for News of the World, and are you [having sex with] your secretary or are you fiddling your expenses?' " McMullan said, defending tactics that would be forbidden at mainstream American newspapers. "You've got to be smarter than that."

Impersonating other people, rummaging through trashcans, planting hidden cameras, bribing police officers, hacking into cellphones — think of it, and it's been done by Britain's aggressive tabloid press in its tireless search for sensational stories. Dodgy ploys like these are what feed a beast that commands the attention of 7 million readers a day, or nearly one out of every eight Britons.

Now, such tactics are coming under major scrutiny amid a growing phone-hacking scandal that has sparked a public uproar and triggered a wide-ranging official inquiry into how Britain's freewheeling news media operate.

The tabloids like to argue that they're acting in the "public interest," but usually that's just shorthand for "what the public is interested in" — namely, stories about sex, drugs and other titillating topics.

But critics argue that society itself needs to do a little self-examination in the wake of the scandal.

"People who have been buying the News of the World or the Sun are now asking themselves questions: This tittle-tattle I've been reading about, these footballers sleeping around, where do these stories come from? Am I so interested that I don't care about the methods used to get these stories?" said Steven Barnett, a journalism professor at the University of Westminster.

The hacking scandal produced disturbing evidence that the News of the World, which was part of media titan Rupert Murdoch's giant News Corp., accessed the voicemails not only of celebrities and politicians but also of crime and terrorism victims in its quest for journalistic one-upmanship.

As a result of the allegations, a senior judge has been assigned the task of finding out how such unethical and sometimes illegal practices were allowed to proliferate. The judge will also examine the news media's cozy relationship with politicians and police, both of whom have been accused of going easy on the press in return for flattering coverage.

The inquiry will probably hear accounts of a cutthroat industry in which the pressure to produce scoops and scandal is so great that ethics get flung aside. It's a world where reporters write big checks for salacious information, set up sting operations to trap high-profile figures who are having affairs, masquerade as hospital staff members to take photographs of actors after surgery, and employ shady private investigators to dig up confidential financial data.

"The pressure is immense to get results," said Richard Peppiatt, who worked until a few months ago at the Daily Star, which though one of Britain's smaller tabloids, boasts a daily circulation of nearly 700,000. "You're supposed to come up with an agenda-setting story on a daily basis."

Britain's scandal sheets have a long and in many cases honorable tradition of muckraking, exposing hypocrisy and holding the great and the good to account. This year, in a happier moment, the News of the World won "Scoop of the Year" at the British Press Awards for a story on match-fixing in cricket.

But Fleet Street's reputation for sleaziness and ethical confusion has an equally long pedigree.

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God) the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to," goes Humbert Wolfe's famous ditty from the early 20th century.

Even though other publications use them, the News of the World was particularly skilled in the "dark arts," the often-shady and deceptive ways of gathering information, industry watchers and former employees said.

Until it was shut down last week, the tabloid was Britain's bestselling weekly newspaper. It lies at the epicenter of the hacking scandal and is suspected of ordering the illegal accessing of people's cellphones on an almost industrial scale.

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