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
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
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
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
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,"
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