Phone Hacking

Against Government Regulation for British Tabloids

Libel laws and public shaming already keep the U.K.’s sensationalist press in check.

Justin Tallis / AFP-Getty Images

The consistent ethical and moral failings of British tabloid journalists are appalling enough, but their snooping into the private lives of British celebrities like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, and Charlotte Church has had an unseen side effect. Broadsheet readers and BBC viewers, the highbrow news consumers allergic to red-top journalism, are now routinely treated to comedians, singers, and actors blathering about the meaning of a free press.

In a television debate with ex-tabloid reporter Paul McMullan, who happily admitted he accessed the voicemails of celebrities for the tabloid News of the World, Coogan barked, “The whole notion of press freedom is a smokescreen for selling newspapers.” On BBC’s Question Time, Church echoed the comedian, dismissing concerns that new legislation could hobble the free press as “smoke and mirrors.” After offering a mangled history of free expression, Church doubled down when asked how state regulation would impact social-media platforms like Twitter. It’s different, she averred, because newspapers engage in “corporate speech, not free speech.”

All of this nonsense was in response to the Leveson Inquiry, a massive investigation into press standards in the United Kingdom precipitated by revelations that journalists illegally accessed phone messages of politicians, celebrities, politicians, and news figures. Lord Justice Leveson was hoping to establish guidelines for a collapsing industry—Twitter and blogs were barely mentioned—recommending a seemingly contradictory “independent” but “self-regulatory” body to oversee press behavior, to be backed up by statutory legislation.

The United Kingdom has no equivalent of the First Amendment, and the British press is already heavily regulated and home to some of the most onerous libel laws in the Western world. But Leveson believes that Britain’s press requires further intervention, offering this worrisome—and worryingly vague—recommendation: “Interference with the activities of the media shall be lawful only insofar as it is for a legitimate purpose and is necessary in a democratic society, having full regard to the importance of media freedom in a democracy.”

This isn’t about “newspapers” as much as it concerned the low-brow “popular press.” Lord Leveson’s dealt almost exclusively with tabloid ethics—something rather difficult to regulate—and less so with “transparency” or “accuracy.” Indeed, when presenting his report, Lord Leveson demanded more openness from the press, but told the assembled that he would not now—or ever—take journalists’ questions about his conclusions. While correctly upbraiding certain newspapers for the use of dubious source material, it was quickly pointed out that the report included an erroneous piece of information extracted from Wikipedia. And worst of all, in July 2011, The Guardian reported that journalists from the Rupert Murdoch–owned News of the World tabloid listened to—and deleted—voicemail messages from missing teenager Milly Dowler’s mobile phone, thus creating false hope that she was still alive and accessing her messages. According to Lord Leveson, it was this story that helped spur the inquiry. But the main detail of the Guardian story—that journalists deleted some of Dowler’s messages—was later proven to be false.

Just weeks after the BBC wrongly accused a former Tory minister of being a peodophile, the station treated viewers to constant coverage of Leveson, thick with sanctimonious man-on-the-street interviews about out-of-control tabloids. On Question Time, an audience member declared that the “British people” are fed up with media sleaze, receiving raucous applause from the crowd. And program host David Dimbleby opened the show by wondering if the United Kingdom would finally get the “press we deserve.” Tabloidism, apparently, had invaded and occupied the United Kingdom without the people’s consent.

Britain, of course, has had exactly the press it deserved. News of the World, one of the worst offenders of phone hacking and sleazy tabloidism, was the largest paper in the country before it was shut down, with tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mail not far behind. (The Mail now claims to be the biggest news website in the world). The Guardian and The Independent, the two newspaper preferred by the correct-thinking intelligentsia, have the smallest circulations among national dailies. As Humphrey Bogart said about Confidential, a vicious and frequently libelous gossip magazine that terrorized Hollywood stars in the 1950s, “Everybody reads it, but they say the cook brought it into the house.”

Among Leveson supporters, there is hope that such disparities in readership between serious broadsheets and bottom-feeding tabloids could be narrowed with a nudge from regulators. The Leveson Inquiry recommended a press watchdog that, unlike previous commission investigations into British journalism, had “teeth.” “Why teeth?” asks British journalist Brendan O’Neill. “So it can bite, of course: maul those who fall short of producing what Leveson and chums describe as ‘journalism in the public interest.’”

There is, though, good news for those who believe in minimal state intervention in the newspaper industry. The report’s conclusions have induced skeptical—and often hostile—reactions from writers and politicians from both sides of the ideological divide. British Prime Minister David Cameron bristled at the commission’s suggestions, worrying that the country could end up “crossing a Rubicon, of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.” The Guardian noted that “editors across Britain were united in their opposition to any form of statutory regulation,” though disagreed on what comes next.

British newspapers are sharper elbowed than their American peers—when Steve Coogan gave evidence before the Leveson Inquiry, one broadsheet writer scoffed that “everything he said was undermined by his preposterous hair”—but it is still unimaginable that Congress would do an audit of the American newspaper industry. The main gripe in this country, heard from those both on the right and left, is with political bias—something Fleet Street embraces—and not “journalists” from TMZ rummaging through Lindsay Lohan’s garbage.

So how is it that the United States, which provides robust First Amendment protections for journalists and newspaper owners, has largely avoided the crises that have rocked the British press? How did celebrities of the 1950s survive magazines like Confidential, which regularly printed false and defamatory material about actors and politicians? Quite simply by making use of existing criminal statutes against libel and theft.

As has been frequently pointed out by critics of the Leveson Inquiry, the stories that have most outraged the British public—crooked cops and hacked phones—concern things that are already illegal in the United Kingdom and hardly necessitate new statutes. Attempt to reign in the prurient tabloid newspaper and readers will be left with the prurient tabloid website, its server located in an Icelandic basement.

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The best remedy is not for well-intentioned bureaucrats to punish scandal mongers and try to ensure that no innocents are harmed in the producing of journalism, but a combination of enforcing existing law and allowing reputable journalists to administer a heavy helping of shame. It’s important to remember that News of the World, a wildly popular paper founded in 1843, was shuttered when its misdeeds were made public—not by an act of Parliament or the pen of a judge but by its humiliated owner, Rupert Murdoch, whose British media empire hung in the balance.