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Ethics Expert Says Leveson is Right to Call for Regulation of British Newspapers

Professor Says There Needs to be a Change in U.K.'s Tabloid Newspaper Culture

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Ethics Expert Says Leveson is Right to Call for Regulation of British Newspapers

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 Leveson report into Britain's phone-hacking scandal is nothing short of a scathing indictment of the country's no-holds-barred tabloid newspapers. And it proposes something that would be unheard of in the United States - an oversight body backed by parliamentary statute, one with broad investigative powers and the authority to levy hefty fines.

In response, many editorial writers have argued that Leveson goes too far, and that his solutions could endanger press freedom in Britain.

But Dr. Stephen Ward, an ethics expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that Britain's rowdy newspaper industry needs something like what Leveson proposes.

Ward has a unique perspective on the situation. Not only is he a widely regarded author on journalism ethics, in the 1990s he was a London-based correspondent for a Canadian wire service. It was there that he saw the recklessness of the red tops, as the tabloids are known, firsthand.

"I used to bring up the idea of journalism ethics in pubs, and the reporters there would tell me it was a load of rubbish," says Ward. "This idea runs through the entire culture there. The British newspapers have brought these problems upon themselves, and now they have to face up to it. There has to be a change in the culture."

But Ward says the feisty British tabs are unlikely to do that on their own, so he endorses the idea of a regulatory body that has the backing of law.

"In an ideal world I'd like to see no press regulations at all," says Ward. "But it's not an ideal world, and this is an attempt to drag British newspapers into the modern world."

For too long, Ward says, tabs like Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, which was closed in response to public outrage over phone-hacking, have operated on the premise that they can have power but not responsibility, "and that's ridiculous."

Ward notes that other countries, like India and Germany, have statutory regulations for the press, "and the sky hasn't fallen. We have to strike the right balance between the papers' right to publish and the people's right not to be harassed."

Ward says there has been too much focus on the punitive aspects of such a regulatory body. What he'd like to see is a more positive focus on teaching ethics in the U.K.'s journalism training programs, as is done in most U.S. j-schools.

"Instead of this new oversight committee simply waiting around to punish papers, it could be promoting ethical journalism and educating young reporters," Ward says. "They have to take the principles of ethics and spell them out in serious ways."

One example, Ward says, would be a discussion of the use of hidden cameras and surveillance in investigative journalism.

In the U.S. such tools are only used in extraordinary circumstances, "but in Britain it became a regular way of doing business."

Ward says there are a variety of reasons why British reporters are so unruly compared to their U.S. counterparts.

"Part of it is the intense competition," he says. "You're on small island where there are many papers in direct conflict. That has tended to promote the 'get the story at any cost' mentality."

The larger problem is that "the British press never got beyond seeing journalism as an an industrial type of job," Ward adds. "Training programs often have little to do with ethics. It's more about toolkits and learning reporting like it's an industrial craft."

But in the end, Ward says, "bad journalism actually hurts the free press, because eventually the scandals come out and the public loses confidence in us."

Which is exactly what happened in Britain.

"Leveson took the best approach, and probably the only approach he could, given the scandal and public's reaction," Ward says. "The worst thing the papers there can do now is to circle the wagons and say we'll have no regulation at all. No one believes that would work."

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