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Does British hacking scandal hold lessons for U.S. media?

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 missing children, 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.

In 2005, News of the World was publishing stories about issues so closely held inside Buckingham Palace that aides to the royal family were certain reporters must be listening to their voice mail messages.

Two staffers eventually went to jail and the editor resigned, later becoming Prime Minister David Cameron's top spokesman. The long-simmering controversy erupted again this week when The Guardian revealed that the News of the World hacked into the voice mails of a missing girl. Reporters deleted messages in a way that led family and police to hope she was still alive when she had been killed.

Further reporting alleged the newspaper paid police 100,000 British pounds (about $160,000) in bribes, and that phones owned by relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan also may have been hacked.

News International officials still say they were unaware of the extent of lawbreaking. But police investigations are under way.

"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," 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.

He doubted such tactics are in 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 news gathering in the U.S.," he added. "So it is possible they may have used the same methodology here, of course."

• • •

TV news networks paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to sources in the Casey Anthony murder trial in Orlando, ostensibly, to "license" video and photos.

But Kelly McBride, lead ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute (the school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times), noted that even tabloids 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," she said. "A lot of newsrooms are realizing (unethical behavior) is a road to ruin."

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.

"I see a shifting mind-set — 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.

Does British hacking scandal hold lessons for U.S. media? 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 10:15pm]
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