LONDON—The media throughout the world like to portray themselves as the defender of the public good, a steadfast bulwark against government excess, a fearless watchdog ready to root out criminality.
But what happens when the press goes rogue, when reporters and editors break the law, and violate common decency as well? When reporters hack into a dead girl’s phone to hear her messages, pay off police when convenient, and conceal their identifies and use hidden cameras to stage “gotcha” moments?
The British press is in shambles as never before, with the disgraced News of the World tabloid to be shut forever Sunday after being accused of using these corrupt practices in its quest for circulation-boosting scoops.
Britain’s randy, rambunctious tabloid press is supposed to be kept in check by the industry-funded Press Complaints Commission, but its investigation into the phone hacking scandal had no teeth, leading Prime Minister David Cameron to call for a whole new system to force newspapers to live up to basic standards.
No one challenges Cameron’s assertion that the press commission has failed—it would be hard to defend it at a time when top journalists are being arrested, newsrooms searched and public anger rising—but there is no consensus on how it can be replaced with a regulatory system that really works.
Peta Buscombe, head of the Press Complaints Commission, said it couldn’t do its job properly in the phone hacking case, because executives from Rupert Murdoch’s News International lied to the commission about the extent of illegal activity at the News of the World—but critics say the fact that editors could deceive the commission with impunity shows how weak the industry self-monitoring system has become.
“The problem is a newspaper proprietor can get away with lying to the PCC, which is owned by newspaper companies,” said Ian Hargreaves, former journalism director at the University of Cardiff and now a digital economics professor there. “It doesn’t command public confidence.”