I've written quite a bit about Britain's phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry's call for tougher regulation of the press. I also interviewed journalism ethics expert Stephen Ward, who agrees with the idea of greater oversight.
Respectfully, I must take issue with Professor Ward, for two reasons. First, I'm a free-speech, free-press purist. I don't think governments should regulate the press, period. The First Amendment is one of the most brilliant and far-seeing passages ever written, and while it only applies to us, the principle involved should, to my mind, be universal.
Second, given the history of Britain's rowdy tabloid papers I don't necessarily think tougher oversight will work. It might even provoke the tabs, which were responsible for the abuses investigated by Leveson, to simply dig in their heels. Indeed, if the tabloids' sleazy reporting methods have been reined in at all in the last year or so it's probably only because of public outrage over the scandal, not threats of intervention.
No, what needs to change is the culture, the ethos that operates in British newsrooms. For too long reporters and editors at the "red tops," as the Brit tabs are known, have stubbornly refused to see what they do as anything more than a trade, as opposed to a profession with ethical guidelines.
To cite just one example: Not long after the phone-hacking scandal hit the headlines, The Daily Telegraph's Toby Harnden wrote a column waxing romantically about roguish Brit reporters. To quote one line:
"I like the fact that British journalists are... a grubby, disreputable breed of misfits and awkward malcontents who delight in upsetting people."
Amazingly, Harnden instead criticized American journalists, whom he portrayed as pretentious bores who were too chummy with the powerful people they cover. But in almost the same breath he admitted 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."
Sorry Toby, but you can't have it both ways. Either the American press is better than yours or it isn't. And while I'm a mega-anglophile and huge fan of the BBC, the U.S. press at its best is superior, because yes, American reporters take their jobs more seriously. If that's pretentious than so be it.
It's time for the romantic notion of the amoral Brit reporter to be tossed in the rubbish bin for good. British reporters need to start thinking of themselves as professionals bound by ethical codes. Codes that include, among other things, the very basic premise that you generally don't break the law when digging up a story.
How can this be accomplished? Education. Compared to the U.S., the U.K. was behind the curve in accepting journalism as a bona fide field of study in universities. Now such programs are growing, which is good. This must continue.
But British papers can't simply wait for the next generation of young journos coming out of "uni" to lead the way. In-house ethics training programs need to be instituted in newsrooms across the U.K. - especially at the tabs, where problems are most likely to occur.
And change must come from the top. Rupert Murdoch's News of the World was at the center of the scandal, and Rebekah Brooks, the paper's editor when phone-hacking occurred, is now facing prosecution. There was clearly a failure of leadership with regards to ethics, one that can't be repeated. Editors must be crystal-clear in banning shady reporting tactics.
Will such measures make British newsrooms less freewheeling? Maybe.
But as the The Financial Times' Robert Shrimsley wrote in the wake of the scandal, "Perhaps we are more fun than our serious American counterparts - but it seems we're the only ones laughing."