Here"s Why a British-style Press Scandal Isn"t Likely to Happen in the U.S.
At its height, The News of the World was not just one of the most widely read newspapers in Britain, but the largest circulation paper in the English-speaking world. As one of the so-called "red top" tabloids, the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper grabbed the attention of millions of readers each Sunday by splashing royal sex scandals, lurid crime stories and paparazzi photos across its pages.
But the paper's no-holds barred attitude toward digging up stories at any cost proved to be its undoing when it was learned that staffers had hacked into the cell phones of possibly thousands of people, including murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, victims of the 2005 London terrorist attack and British soldiers killed in combat.
Outrage over the phone-hacking scandal, as it came to be known, forced The News of the World to close in July 2011, though the ramifications of the paper's misdeeds continue to be felt.
But could such blatant ethical breaches happen at a U.S. news outlet?
Not likely, says journalism ethics expert Stephen J.A. Ward, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia who in the 1990s spent five years as a London correspondent for the Canadian Press.
The hyper-aggressive approach to reporting that's practiced by Britain's raciest tabloids comes out of a different tradition than American tabs, he says.
"The British tabloids have always been the raunchiest and most aggressive tabs around," Ward says. "They take great pride in that; they claim they're doing a tough, no-nonsense type of journalism."
But, Ward adds, "that's largely a delusion. They're not doing good journalism and not really breaking big stories. They tend to focus on sex, celebrity and partisan ideology."
U.S. newspapers - even mainstream tabs like the New York Daily News or Chicago Sun-Times - generally follow a broad set of ethical guidelines in newsgathering.
Ward says while journalism is often viewed as a profession in the U.S., in Britain it's seen as a trade.
And while dozens of of U.S. universities have journalism schools that deal extensively with ethics and the law, in Britain "there's not a lot of time for journalism classes that teach ethics or history," Ward says. "It's like a factory - you learn to do your job and you do it. Ethics is seen as something that wimps or academics worry about. There's a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism.
"It's a strange culture, journalism-wise," Ward adds. "On the one hand you have the BBC, a very well-respected news organization, almost the gold standard. But then you have the hugely popular tabloids, which are very powerful and much more central to the daily news agenda than tabs in the U.S."
As for the ethics of the News of the World, "it's a no-brainer to say that what this paper did was wrong and irresponsible and probably illegal," Ward says. "It's more important to ask about the culture of journalism in Britain and why it seems to sustain this sort of behavior."
The scandal led to the Leveson report, a scathing indictment of Britain's tabloids. The report proposed something that would be unheard of in the United States: greater oversight of the press, through a panel backed by parliamentary statute, one with broad investigative powers and the authority to levy hefty fines.
British papers howled that such regulations will smother press freedom in Britain, and called on Prime Minister David Cameron to drop them.
Ward would like to see British papers take a cue from the U.S. media and better regulate themselves. But given that this isn't likely to happen, he endorses the goals of the Leveson report
"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."
Journalists who commit acts like the ones done at The News of the World "are doing journalism in general a tremendous disservice," he adds. "This is a real body-blow to the press in Britain."
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