An official inquest into British tabloids–accused in recent months of everything from blackmailing politicians and celebrities to hacking into cell phones of crime victims, from bribing police for salacious information to paying informants for intimate and embarrassing revelations about prominent figures–is fodder for Prof. Bennett Gershman’s latest entry on the Huffington Post.
In particular, Prof. Gershman considers how the British tabloids were “able to operate for so long and engage in lawless conduct with impunity in a legal system that is far less hospitable to free speech and free press than that of the United States.”
Prof. Gershman presents a few different theories. Regarding the lack of government regulation, restriction or criticism of the tabloids’ behavior, he writes:
Indeed, there was a symbiosis of sorts. The Murdoch publishing empire appears to have held a tight fist over successive British governments. Indeed, nobody was surprised when current Prime Minister David Cameron hired as his communications director Andy Coulson, the editor of the News of the World (Coulson described the tabloid’s payments to police for secret information as “within the law”), and had it not been for the hacking scandal, Murdoch was poised with the government’s blessing to take control of the $12 billion pay-television company British Sky Broadcasting. Moreover, let’s not forget the political clout of the tabloids in supporting and attacking politicians, and thereby making these politicians much more subservient to the tabloid’s interests. Indeed, it was only at the end of his tenure that Prime Minister Blair described the British media as behaving like a “feral beast.”
Also, it is not unreasonable to suggest, and there is evidence to support this, that the massive phone hacking produced embarrassing information not only about celebrities and prominent athletes, but also about government officials (News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks used her tabloid to smear Prime Minister Gordon Brown), and these officials who likely would think twice before criticizing tabloid excesses for fear of retribution. And, of course, in a brazen culture of “checkbook journalism” where truth and ethics don’t matter, the tabloids know that persons wronged by their misconduct would be deterred by the amount of time and expense it takes to litigate claims of defamation and invasion of privacy. Anyway, after cashing in on inflammatory headlines, the tabloids could always print a self-serving retraction, probably on the back page.