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Brit Tab at Center of Phone-Hacking Scandal Had Crossed Ethical Lines for Years

But No-Holds-Barred Approach to Reporting is Likely to Continue, Scholar Says


The British phone-hacking scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch's media empire dates back several years, but a no-holds-barred approach to investigative journalism - one that often crosses ethical lines - has existed in Britain for decades.

So says British journalist and scholar Kenneth Panton, who has written a number of books on his native land, including the "Historical Dictionary of the United Kingdom."

Panton recalls that when he was a cub reporter in Britain in the 1960s, paying sources for stories - a practice strongly frowned upon in the U.S. - was fairly common.

Competition between British papers is fierce, and the pressure to land scoops is intense - more so than in the U.S., Panton said. The result? A get-the-story-at-all-costs ethos in British newsrooms.

"In the U.S., newspapers tend to have fairly well-defined geographical markets so they stories they carry have to appeal to all sectors of the population and so, by British standards, can seem very bland," Panton said in an e-mail.

"The U.K. is small - only about one-fourth the size of Texas - so the whole country is the market for all of the newspapers," he added. "That produces competition for readers and the competition, in turn, may have led to the hard-nosed approach of the reporters, who are under pressure to produce exclusives that will pull readers from other papers."

And in fact British papers have produced some very solid investigative work over the years, Panton said. In 1986, the Sunday Times revealed that Israel was manufacturing nuclear armaments. In 1994 the Guardian named members of parliament who were accepting cash payments in return for asking specific questions in the House of Commons.

"Even some of the tabloid stories had serious implications, as when the Daily Mirror exposed the lax security at Buckingham Palace by using false references to get one of its reporters employed as a footman just before George W. Bush visited in 2003," he said.

But the tabloids, also known as "redtops" for their red nameplates, have mostly focused on sex and drug scandals involving celebrities like David Beckham and Hugh Grant.

The paper at the center of the phone-hacking controversy, the News of the World, was the world's most popular newspaper in the 1950s, selling close to 10 million copies every Sunday.

But as competition for readers increased, the News of the World and other tabs "began featuring bare-breasted models, setting up sting operations to trap unwary celebrities, and publishing stories about the private lives of members of the royal family," Panton said.

Indeed, the News of World became known as the 'News of the Screws' for its seemingly relentless pursuit of sex scandals.

And long before the current phone-hacking controversy, the paper regularly got into trouble for its campaigns, such as one against convicted pedophiles that led to several innocent people being pilloried. "One pediatrician had her home vandalized because some of the public didn't know the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile," Panton said.

Still, the News of the World might have even gotten away with snooping on private cellphone conversations, if it had just focused on the rich and powerful.

When it was limited to "politicians, highly paid soccer players, film stars, and Sarah Ferguson the public seemed willing to accept it and to gobble up the tales," Panton said. "However, deleting the voice messages on a murdered schoolgirl's cellphone appears to have taken the paper beyond the pale."

In the digital age, "the question "seems to be not just 'what is criminal?' but 'what is acceptable?', and the News of the World has a lengthy history of stepping very close to moral boundaries," Panton said.

Even though the News of the World is now history, the crossing of such boundaries is likely to continue in many British papers, long after the current outrage has faded. "It is unlikely that the News of the World ethos will die with the paper," Panton said.

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