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Phone-hacking Scandal Stirs Debate in Britain: Is Journalism a Profession?

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Phone-hacking Scandal Stirs Debate in Britain: Is Journalism a Profession?

Readers in Britain peruse the last issue of the News of the World, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid that was shut down amid a phone-hacking controversy

Photo courtesy Getty Images

The phone-hacking scandal has reignited a long-running debate in Britain:

Should journos, as they're known across the pond, follow the lead of their American counterparts and conduct themselves as professionals who observe a code of ethical guidelines?

Or should they continue to think of their work as a trade, unrestrained by moral and ethical handwringing?

The Daily Telegraph's Toby Harnden votes for trade. He frets that if the British press turn pro they'll somehow become little more than meek tools of the country's political establishment. And he waxes almost romantically about roguish Brit reporters:

"I like the fact that British journalists are... a grubby, dispreputable breed of misfits and awkward malcontents who delight in upsetting people."

Conveniently setting aside the fact that it was grubby British journos who hacked into the phones of murdered schoolgirls, Harnden, who's based in Washington, reserves his vitriol for American journalists, whom he sees as a bunch of pretentious bores who've grown too chummy with the powerful people they cover.

Still, in almost the same breath he admits that American journalism "is more accurate, more comprehensive, and more serious than some of the (let's be frank) tendentious and prurient bilge you can read in some British papers."

The Financial Times' Robert Shrimsley agrees that Brit reporters are more freewheeling than the Yanks, but he's not so sure that's a good thing.

Shrimsley notes that while those involved in phone-hacking have been roundly and rightly condemned, many British journalists have rushed to defend Johann Hari, a columnist for the upscale Independent newspaper who allegedly plagiarized quotes.

Haris' misdeeds are small beans compared to phone-hacking, "but that's why his apologists are more emblematic of the malaise," Shrimsley writes. "If serious titles won't fight for standards, who will?"

He adds:

"It is hard to imagine the same forgiving response in the U.S. to a calculated deception of the reader... Perhaps we are more fun than our serious American counterparts - but it seems we're the only ones laughing."

Do American journalists take themselves too seriously? Possibly. Have U.S. newsrooms gotten a little stuffy? Probably. Just listen to any old-timer reminisce about the days when every reporter had a Smith Corona on his desk and a flask of JD in his bottom drawer.

The sense of youthful freedom that comes from not having to worry about standards or responsibility is long gone from American newsrooms.

But over the last half-century or so, American reporters became better-educated. Journalism schools sprang up to train students in professional standards and codes of conduct. Reporters began striving to provide not just accuracy and objectivity but also perspective and thoughtful analysis. A couple of investigative reporters named Woodward and Bernstein brought down a corrupt president.

American journalism grew up.

Are things perfect here? Of course not. The Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal shows journalistic misdeeds of the highest order can still occur, even at top-tier news outlets.

But iff the phone-hacking scandal has shown anything, it's that many British journalists have let themselves off the hook for far too long. By refusing to adopt the kinds of standards found in other professions, by accepting a get-the-story-at-all-costs ethos, a culture of corruption and even criminality took root in more than one newsroom.

It's time for British journalists to understand that if they don't take their work seriously, no one else will. Time for them to regulate themselves before the government does it for them.

Time for British journalism to grow up.

Also read:

Phone-hacking Scandal Threatens Rupert Murdoch's Media Empire

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