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Op-Ed

And now, bang go Britain's tabloids

After the phone-hacking scandal, Britain needs its elected politicians to be braver in standing up to unelected media barons, and it needs more regulation of ownership and competition policy.

November 24, 2011|By Timothy Garton Ash

Like a truth commission, the official inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal exposes story after story of intrusion and intimidation. But this is Britain, so the unchecked power that created this culture of fear was not the military or secret police; it was tabloid newspapers.

Most tabloid editors and proprietors are still in denial. They invoke free speech and the public interest while condemning a few bad apples (a small orchard by now). But one former editor has faced up to the difficult past.

David Yelland, who edited the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun for nearly five years, this week acknowledged that tabloid editors in the era of Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the early months of David Cameron, simply had too much unaccountable power. Faced with a story about a soccer player's sex life, Yelland recalled honestly, he would not have asked himself if publishing it was in the public interest; he would have asked if the story "stood up." He felt as if he had a "big red button" on his desk. If he pressed it, the next morning there would be an explosion somewhere. (Bang goes a career, a family. Bang goes a life.)

Yelland was responding to a searching lecture by philosopher Onora O'Neill at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. She asked why journalists should be immune to the kinds of accountability that are now the norm in other areas of public life. "The media have been keen enough on transparency for others with power and influence," she concluded, "and what is sauce for political geese is surely also sauce for media ganders."

But what will change the behavior of these geese and ganders? For two decades, the mightiest in the land have trembled before the media barons. Politicians have feared that the mass-circulation papers would swing elections against them. Many have also been afraid of the exposure of some painful or embarrassing corner of their private lives. The word "blackmail" is not so far off.

Has this changed durably for the better since the exposure of the hacking scandal? I wouldn't count on it.

Remember that it was only at the very end of his decade as prime minister that Blair dared to describe the British media as behaving "like a feral beast." If the phone-hacking scandal had not exploded when it did, the Cameron government would almost certainly have allowed Murdoch's News International to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting, thus reinforcing its dominant position in the British media market. I bet that privately, No. 10 Downing St. is eager as ever to woo the Daily Mail and the Sun.

We in Britain need our elected politicians to be braver in standing up to unelected media barons, and we need more regulation of ownership and competition policy. As Yelland pointed out, if the bosses of Associated Newspapers (owners of the Daily Mail) and News International get together for lunch and agree on something, which they have done from time to time, it will almost certainly happen — for between them they control about 60% of the British newspaper market.

What we emphatically don't need is politicians having the power to curb the editorial content of newspapers. After all, politicians should be afraid of the media — for all the good reasons that inspired the authors of America's 1st Amendment. In this respect, the best answer is "self-regulation with teeth." But one or two of these teeth should be publicly funded, with some form of legal enforcement. Perhaps because Britain has no 1st Amendment, it has been easier for things to go so badly wrong here — but, by the same token, we may also have more flexibility as we figure out how to put them right.

This applies above all to privacy. Most free-speech experts would agree that the one major justification of intrusions into privacy is the public interest. The difficulty comes in defining the one and the other. In some places, the balance has been too much in favor of privacy. Was there not a genuine public interest in French voters being told earlier about presidential candidate-in-waiting Dominique Strauss-Kahn's predatory record with women?

In Britain, however, newspapers routinely cite the public interest when there is none. Lawyers for the News of the World invoked the memory of the Holocaust to suggest that there was a genuine public interest in the unsubstantiated revelations of Nazi insignia at a private orgy involving Max Mosley — at that time head of the international governing body for Formula One racing, and the son of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

Total humbug. What they really mean is not the public interest but "what interests the public" — and sells newspapers. And let's be honest, most of us are interested in gossip, even if we think we shouldn't be. (This is how American journalist Michael Kinsley summarizes his experience editing Slate during the Monica Lewinsky affair: "Their emails say no no, but their mouse clicks say yes yes.")

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