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SPECIAL REPORT- Murdoch Row - Why UK Tabloids Bin-dive and Blag

Thursday, 07 Jul 2011 10:19 AM

 

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By Kate Holton and Mark Hosenball

LONDON, July 7 (Reuters) - Benjamin Pell made a second career out of digging through the contents of people's rubbish bags and selling it to the British press. The office cleaner, or 'Benji the Binman' as he was known to his clients on Fleet Street, regularly passed journalists the discarded papers of lawyers, celebrities and business executives. Benji's low-tech operations in the late 1990s fed stories on a high-profile libel case and even Elton John's flower bill.

British tabloids have a long and colourful history of finding new ways to get the story. From rooting through bins to hacking into email accounts, journalists at the so-called 'redtops' have long reveled in their roguish tactics.

Now, though, one tabloid may have gone too far.

Allegations that tabloid journalists from Rupert Murdoch's Sunday scandal sheet News of the World hacked into the mobile voicemails of ordinary people -- including a schoolgirl who was later found murdered, and victims and families of the 2005 terrorist attack in London and dead British soldiers -- have outraged Britons and spurred calls for public inquiries into tabloid behaviour, tougher regulation and limits on Murdoch's ownership of media outlets.

The revelations, initially carried by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, are part of a long-running hacking scandal which initially emerged when the royal family realised their phones were being hacked. Until now it has focused on the News of the World's pursuit of celebrities and royals.

As Britain descends into one of its regular bouts of self examination, it's worth asking whether the country's tabloids are really so much worse than those elsewhere. How do they stack up against rivals across the Atlantic, where the New York Post, another Murdoch property, faces a lawsuit over its claims that the maid at the centre of an attempted rape case against Dominic Strauss-Kahn was a prostitute. And what about the rest of Europe?

Steven Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster University, is in no doubt that Britain's tabloids go further than any others.

"Time and time again, particularly in the last three or four years when I travel for work, I'm asked 'what is it about our tabloid press?'" he told Reuters. "Why are they so outrageous and why is nothing done about it? I think the rest of the world looks on in astonishment frankly."

So what is it that drives Britain's tabloids in a race to the bottom? And what holds back the press in other countries?

BLAGGING, BIN-DIVING AND TIP OFFS

In Britain, the short answer is that the tabloids push harder because they can. Or rather, in a ferociously competitive environment, they must -- because if they don't do it, somebody else will.

Nick Davies, an investigative reporter for the Guardian and author of "Flat Earth News", a book exposing Fleet Street excesses, has been a principal investigator of British tabloid scandals. Davies describes a "regime of fear" in British tabloid newsrooms in which journalists are terrified of getting fired unless they constantly produce exclusives. In that environment, ethics are often cast aside.

Tactics include Pell-style "bin-diving", "blagging" -- pretending to be someone else to gain access to private information about an individual -- paying the police for tip-offs, and hiring private investigators to do the above or tail targets.

Some of those methods have been around for decades. It has long been known to insiders that British newspapers provide police sources with "bungs" -- slang for bribes. But with the advent of computers, voicemail and mobile phones, Fleet Street has become ever more sophisticated.

Some of Britain's broadsheets are not totally averse to those methods, though Davies said that to his knowledge, the Guardian, The Financial Times and Britain's Independent newspaper shun the use of illegal or unethical tactics and the employment of private detectives. "Everybody else did it," he told Reuters. The Guardian and Financial Times are also among a handful of titles which refuse to follow a widespread tabloid practice of paying sources for a story.

Claire Enders, the head of the Enders Analysis media consultancy, said the British don't turn to tabloids for facts. There are more tabloids read in Britain than elsewhere, "and I've always put that down to the fact that news on TV is impartial so people get their opinions from the tabloids."

It doesn't help that the press watchdog is so weak. In Britain, the press is self-regulated by a body called the Press Complaints Commission, which can require a paper to publish its rulings on complaints against newspapers but little else. Even its gentlest critics call it toothless; one British parliamentarian this week described it as a "fishnet condom".

Given British tabloids' reputation, why the outrage over this case? It's one thing to target non-celebrities, many in the UK have noted this week, and another to go after the victims of crime and terrorism.

"Private Eye has long used the derogatory term 'hacks' to describe British journalists," said Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, a satirical bi-weekly magazine that has made media excesses a staple of its columns and is also a vigorous critic of Murdoch's companies. "We had no idea that under Rupert Murdoch's malign influence, so many of them would take the term literally," he told Reuters in an email.

Other democracies "every bit as strong and robust as ours" thrive without the "nauseating tabloid coverage and routine intrusion into ordinary people's private lives," said Westminster University's Barnett." In terms of the tactics that they use and the way they routinely invade people's privacy without any regard for the impact on those individuals, I think the Italians and others would still regard the British press as even below theirs. As do Americans."

THE ECONOMY, STUPID

The United States has its share of tabloids full of punning headlines and lurid tales. But in general their journalists say they don't go as far as their British counterparts.

One of the big differences between the two countries, according to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington D.C., boils down to economics. In the United States, newspapers generate about 75 to 80 percent of their revenue from advertisers while newspapers in the United Kingdom depend more on newsstand sales.

While British papers need to shout, "there is a tradition of the American press that is more serious," says Rosenstiel. "That tradition has been encouraged by advertisers." They are paying for space that is "credible and respectable."

Some scandals, such as President Bill Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, are broken by serious magazines and rely not on hacking but on more traditional reporting methods. Michael Isikoff, the reporter for Newsweek Magazine who originally uncovered the story, says the concept of hacking didn't even exist at that time.

"I adhered to the standard rules of journalistic practice," Isikoff, who has since left Newsweek, told Reuters. "I never pretended to be anyone other than who I was -- a journalist for Newsweek."

FRENCH RESTRAINT

In Europe, stronger laws -- and what some argue is an innate aversion to sleaze -- limit the tactics of the tabloids.

In France, strict privacy laws bar newspapers and magazines from printing intrusive photographs of public figures in private moments. Frederic Gerschel, a senior journalist at the daily Le Parisien, previously worked at the glossy, celebrity-filled weekly Paris Match and says he has never heard of papers hiring private detectives, intercepting telephone calls or sending people out undercover to frame or trap public figures.

"Journalists don't use the same methods as British tabloids. We don't allow just anything -- there is a general respect,"

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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