News of the World Closure and the Ethical Limits of Tabloid Journalism

The spreading phone-hacking scandal demonstrates that the U.K. needs stronger press oversight.

So farewell, then, News of the World. We will remember Squidgygate and Camillagate, the buying up of witnesses (“blood money”), the “kiss and sell” affairs, the share-tipping scandal, the celebrity hacks, and, most recently, the necrophilihacks. Its editors have been “drinking at the last-chance saloon” for the past 30 years, which should enter into the Guinness record book as the longest swill in history.

It saw off the powerless Press Council, replaced by the worthless Press Complaints Commission. Nothing has really changed since it was condemned for publishing topless pictures of Diana on a private beach, to which judgment the paper responded by republishing them under the headline “This Is What the Row’s All About, Folks.”

News of the World proved that self-regulation was bound to fail, whenever cutthroat circulation was at stake, to instill any sense of ethical conduct, or even respect for the criminal law, in the business of tabloid infotainment. That is partly because Britain is an excessively prurient society, addicted to Sunday-morning schadenfreude as it reads of other people's grief and adulteries. But it is also because the harlot’s prerogative through the ages, of power without responsibility, has cowered most of the U.K.’s democratic institutions that should stand up for decency and the rule of law.

For all the self-righteousness on display in Parliament this week, MP’s took their cue from the prime minister’s utterly mistaken assumption that there should be no public enquiry until police investigations had run their course. By which time—years into the future, as Scotland Yard virtually admitted yesterday, engulfed by 11,000 pages with 4,000 hacked names (and that’s just for 2006)—memories will have faded and News Ltd will be the proprietor of BSkyB.

This is exactly the situation that the U.K.’s Inquiries Act was passed, as recently as 2005, to avoid. It permits a speedy and authoritative examination of a matter of scandal and concern, so as to allay public disquiet and ensure the scandal is not repeated. The inquiry does not prejudge trials—it has no power to determine anyone’s civil or criminal liability. But its chairman has power to require the production of documents and to insist that anyone—even Rupert Murdoch—attend for public examination. This power can be enforced by the High Court, on pain of criminal sanction. Such an inquiry is set up by resolution of both Houses of Parliament, to examine a matter “of urgent public importance.”

The issues that need urgent inquiry are not made any less urgent by the closure of the paper. They are not only those identified by the prime minister, such as ineptness of the original police investigation. There must be an examination of the culture of the tabloid press, the bribery and corruption that have gone on between journalists and their police sources, the total failure of self-regulation (and whether to replace it), and the inadequate training of English journalists in law and ethics (most had no idea that phone hacking was made illegal in 1998, and payments to police are still regarded as “inappropriate” when they are seriously criminal).

Previous Royal Commissions into the press (the last reported in 1975) did achieve some useful reforms, especially by introducing rules to protect against media monopolies (scandalously ignored by the Thatcher government when News Ltd took over The Times and The Sunday Times) and laying down the test for “fit and proper” proprietors. That is a test that a public inquiry would be much better equipped to answer than Jeremy Hunt, a Tory minister who is judge in his party’s cause.

There can be no excuse, other than fear of News Ltd (and, to be fair, the company has said it would welcome a public inquiry), to delay. Police inquiries in the U.K. are not very competent or comprehensive; witnesses and suspects do not have to answer questions; there will be no attempt to get at the truth about ethical standards. Police are notoriously poor at investigating senior police officers, whose relations with media executives need to be put under the microscope. In such sensitive and political matters, Britain is still in the age of Constable Dogberry—in the U.S., the process would be conducted much more effectively by special prosecutors and in Europe by examining judges.

So a public inquiry under the 2005 act, set up in the next few days with a clear brief (which must include the issue of whether Murdoch can buy BSkyB) and a deadline to report in six to nine months, is the only sensible way forward. David Cameron is right to avoid a sitting judge—they should be kept out of politics. Fortuitously, two leading jurists who have valuably contributed to intellectual debate on press freedom—Lord Hoffman and Sir Stephen Sedley—have recently retired, and may be available to act as chairman. A few respected members of press and public should be appointed to the tribunal—the likes of Kate Adie, Ian Hislop, Martin Bell, Richard Branson, and Harold Evans [who is married to the editor in chief of The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company] come to mind. With its own counsel and team of investigators, the hearings could begin in October and be over by Christmas, with the report published by Easter. Hunt has postponed his quasi-judicial decision on BSkyB until September, but no one will believe it is in any sense “judicial” unless it is informed by a proper inquiry into the fitness of News Ltd.

The closure of News of the World must not end the British debate over the ethical limits of tabloid journalism: this dramatic gesture should be a signal to begin it in earnest. The Press Complaints Commission is a confidence trick that has ceased to inspire confidence—other countries that respect free speech have statutory “press ombudspersons” who adjudicate public complaints, direct retractions and compensation, enforce rights of reply, and monitor ethical standards. Had the British media been prepared to accept this form of statutory regulation, the public would be enjoying News of the World for many years to come.