Is British News of the World scandal a warning shot for U.S. media?
It's easy for American media types to feel smug about what's happening in Britain's tabloid newspaper industry right now.
After all, bad as our media outlets can be -- paying sources involved in the Casey Anthony trial, pretending to be a famous conservative political donor to get a governor on the phone -- our largest news organizations would never institutionalize a culture of illegally breaking into people's voice mail systems to get news scoops.
The fact is, the unfolding scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World newspaper, shutting down after 168 years amid allegations that they tampered with voice mail accounts of thousands, has been at hand for years.
The New York Times had a searing report last year documenting the Wild West of newsgathering styles at tabloids in Britain, where NoW was leading a pack that routinely hired private investigators to practice was called the "dark arts" of bending and breaking laws to get news scoops.
I had a story in today's newspaper about what U.S. media could learn from the scandal; I'm posting the longer version here, just in case you're interested. The biggest upshot: American media could be on the lip of similar rule-breaking if we don't police ourselves better.
Here's the story:
You might think a man who has lobbied for more than two years for an investigation into the journalism practices of British tabloid News of the World would be glad to hear a phone hacking scandal has essentially killed the paper.
But you would be wrong.
Instead, Martin Moore fears the decision Thursday by Rupert Murdoch's News International to close the 168-year-old newspaper after Sunday's edition is a dodge.
His concern: Murdoch is sacrificing one of the world's most-read English-language newspapers (2.6 million circulation) to stop a very messy, very public controversy over allegations the newspaper officially enabled illegal interception of voice mails of a missing child, relatives of dead soldiers and members of the British Royal family.
"In many ways, it's an act of vandalism," said Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, a London-based nonprofit championing ethical and transparent journalism.
"We launched a campaign for a public inquiry (in 2009) because we were becoming increasingly concerned this would affect the whole press in Britain," he said, noting a 2009 report by The Guardian newspaper that alleged up to 3,000 celebrities had their phones hacked by reporters from News of the World. "Without a public inquiry, we're never going to know how far this has gone."
Coming on the heels of the Casey Anthony murder trial that revealed ethically questionable practices among some American media outlets, Britain's nightmarish example of tabloid reporting run amok raises a question that hits closer to home.
Could the same thing happen in the United States? Or worse, could it already be happening?
The scandal started, as many British controversies do, with the Royal Family.
More specifically, representatives of the Royal Family complained in 2005 that the News of the World was publishing stories on issues so private, reporters must be listening to the voice mail messages of key people.
Two years later, an editor and a private investigator employed by the newspaper were jailed over the scandal and editor Andy Coulson resigned – insisting he knew nothing about widespread hacking before landing a job as top spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron.
By September 2010, the New York Times magazine published a massive story alleging that the newspaper had “a frantic, sometimes degrading atmosphere in which some reporters openly pursued hacking or other improper tactics to satisfy demanding editors.” The story also alleged every London tabloid had reporters and private investigators practicing the “dark arts” of phone hacking and other law breaking.
But when The Guardian this week revealed allegations that the newspaper hacked into the voice mails of then-missing Milly Dowler (right), deleting messages in a way which led family and police to believe she was still alive when she had been killed, the controversy exploded.
Further reporting alleged the newspaper paid police 100,000 British pounds (about $160,000) in bribes and phones owned by relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been hacked.
So when News International Chairman James Murdoch (son of company owner Rupert Murdoch) announced Thursday the newspaper would close after Sunday’s edition, donating its weekend ad space to charities amid concessions that he had “serious regret” about approving settlement payments to victims of hacking, critics grew suspicious.
"The thing that will be most damaging to the company is not the illegal things that were done, but the cover up,” said Michael Wolff, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair who wrote an extensive 2008 biography of Australian-born mogul Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News. “What we have here is a four-year history of people in the company saying one thing and the (exact) opposite turning out to be true.”
Wolff, who has long chronicled drama in the Murdoch family, said they are in conflict over Rebekah Brooks, a top executive who led the newspaper while some of these crimes occurred. And while family members collide over whether to protect her, long-suppressed anti-Murdoch sentiments are surfacing in Britain, Wolff said.
He also expressed doubt such lawbreaking tactics were in wide use at Murdoch-owned U.S. journalism outlets such as the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and Fox News Channel. “But News of the World does a lot of newsgathering in the U.S.,” he added. “So it is possible they may have used the same methodology here, of course.”
Looking at coverage of the Casey Anthony murder trial in Orlando, where mainstream TV news networks paid sources hundreds of thousands of dollars for materials used in stories, it’s easy to worry American media may be perched on the same unethical path.
But Kelly McBride, lead ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute (the school for journalists which owns the St. Petersburg Times) noted that even tabloid newspapers such as the National Enquirer seek mainstream credibility for scoops such as uncovering the love child of onetime presidential candidate John Edwards.
“I would think their desire to be legitimate would prevent them from doing something so incredibly illegal…even if they pay for stories,” she said. “A lot of newspapers are realizing (such behavior) is a road to ruin, and are pulling back from that.”
The St. Petersburg Times does not pay sources for stories or break the law to obtain material for stories – ethical guidelines accepted by most mainstream news outlets.
Still, the editor of the Buffalo Beast alternative news website in February pretended to be a famous conservative contributor to get Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on the telephone. And the sports blog Deadspin admitted paying $12,000 to obtain salacious voice mails and alleged nude photos of star quarterback Brett Favre.
“I see a shifting mindset – not in the mainstream media, but in other places – where people do whatever it takes to get the job done,” said Kevin Smith, chairman of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.
Recalling one reporter who told him he "friended" a teenager on Facebook to learn more about the person's parent, Smith allowed "it's possible there may be individual journalists doing this without the permission of their editors, as opposed to a cultural environment where everything is fair game."
Moore hopes U.S. journalists learn from the emerging scandal and police themselves before larger controversies erupt.
"The press has to clean its own house . . . or the government will."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.