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Commentary

Murdoch Papers' Intrusion May Shock Brown, But It Doesn't Surprise Me

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was "shocked" at the use of criminals to access his personal records, while "The Sun's" disclosure that it knew of his son's medical condition reduced him and his wife, Sarah, to tears, he said.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was "shocked" at the use of criminals to access his personal records, while "The Sun's" disclosure that it knew of his son's medical condition reduced him and his wife, Sarah, to tears, he said.
By Robert Tait
So it wasn't just about the "News of the World." Having closed his biggest-selling tabloid after revelations of its industrial-scale hacking turned it from cash cow to commercial liability, Rupert Murdoch now stands apparently helpless as allegations of journalistic malpractice threaten to engulf his other newspapers.

"The Sun" and the "Sunday Times" are accused of having systematically tried to excavate private details of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown over a 10-year period. Particular revulsion is being directed at "The Sun" for revealing that Brown's infant son suffered from cystic fibrosis after obtaining his medical records, possibly by illegal means.

At other times, the "Sunday Times" used underhand means -- and on one occasion, a convicted conman -- to access Brown's personal financial records, activity that the former prime minister has roundly condemned. The use of criminals to access his files left him "shocked," while "The Sun's" disclosure that it knew of his son's medical condition reduced him and his wife, Sarah, to tears, Brown told the BBC.

The former prime minister has every right to be shocked at the brazen intrusion into his personal affairs and private grief. Yet the revelation that Murdoch's papers took a keen interest in him and his family are less of a surprise to me. In fact, it was arguably what once landed me a job on the "Sunday Times," the heavyweight publication in which Murdoch is known to have always taken great pride.

A man takes a copy of the last edition of Britain's "News of the World" in London on July 10.
In January 2002, I did a shift in the paper's Scotland office and was commissioned to write a piece on Brown's political future after the death of his first daughter, Jennifer Jane, aged just 10 days. The story was written and researched on the day of the infant's funeral and published two days later.

There was nothing salacious in the report. It was simply a record of what I gleaned from my own political contacts and speculated on how such a terrible personal tragedy might affect the outlook and career of a man who -- as chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister -- was Britain's second-most-powerful politician after Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The "Sunday Times" was nonetheless delighted. They offered me a job, which I accepted.

The story had pushed all the right buttons.

Tabloid Practices

That became clear in subsequent months when more stories were demanded on Brown. In fairness, these were related to his political machinations and his power struggle with Blair and involved no dubious reporting techniques. But it was aggressive, proactive, and often hostile journalism whose goal was emphatically not to act as his public-relations conduit.

Similar attention was paid to other senior Scottish members of Blair's U.K. cabinet, notably Alastair Darling, whose left-wing past was raked over when he was appointed transport secretary, and John Reid, then Northern Ireland secretary. Indeed Reid, a key Blair ally and later defense secretary, was a subject of particular interest. Sustained efforts were made to establish if unsavory or criminal elements attended his fund-raising dinners, no evidence for which, to my knowledge, was ever found. A friend told me how he had rejected a job on the paper around that time because the brief involved "raking through John Reid's bins."

None of this, it must be stressed, involved me having to hack into phones or use methods that I knew to be illegal. In fact, levels of professionalism were high. Facts were rigorously checked and for contentious stories, balancing quotes were persistently sought.

News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch holds a copy of "The Sun" as he is driven away from his flat in central London on July 11.
Yet the "Sunday Times" was no place for shrinking violets and there were practices there that struck me as, to put it mildly, distinctive. It was possible, for example, to obtain unlisted phone numbers as long as you knew a person's address, something obtained from the electoral roll, which could be accessed online. Getting such information quickly became routine. It occurred to me at the time -- and does so even more strongly now -- that if such resources were available to a branch office, what additional means were being deployed at its Wapping headquarters in London?

I eventually left the "Sunday Times" at the beginning of 2003, not out of distaste for its methods but because I was keen to pursue my ambition to be a foreign correspondent.

Yet the experience had given me an insight into the success formula of Murdoch's newspapers. It was also an object lesson in cutting edge and -- yes, tabloid -- reporting principles.

Endangering Press Freedoms

For a non-British audience, the tabloid dimension cannot be overstressed. The "Sunday Times" is not, in fact, a tabloid. It is renowned as one of the pillars of Britain's respectable broadsheet press. But in British journalistic culture -- in contrast to the press in, say, the United States -- such distinctions are often blurred and this was certainly true of the "Sunday Times."

The reason is that tabloid journalism in Britain has always carried substantial political heft and has produced newspapers that carry politics and sex cheek by jowl -- sometimes in the same stories. It is a formula which, when added to higher sales, has often enabled papers like the "News of the World" and its News International stable mate, "The Sun," to set the political agenda ahead of their broadsheet counterparts.

Their influence -- and their commercial success -- has been the envy of the more serious newspapers, which have felt driven to ape their methods, says John Lloyd, director of the Reuters Program for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. Yet those same methods have created a threat to the very press freedom they need in order to thrive, he says.

"It's turned out to be a danger to the free press because it has caused the closure of one newspaper and it was a danger to the free press while it was working because it meant that the free press wasn't free -- it was criminal," Lloyd says. "It's also dangerous in that it wasn't just the 'News of the World.' Quite clearly, that culture applied to other tabloid newspapers and possibly to the so-called up-market newspapers. It was quite general across the British newspaper culture and that too put a press that should be independent and that should certainly not indulge in criminal activity on the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of their own ethics. So in quite a serious sense, it is a threat to the free press."

The immediate peril is that politicians still angry about being embroiled in a media-driven parliamentary-expenses scandal two years ago could take revenge by imposing statutory legislation that restricts the media's right to intrude on privacy, even when it serves the public interest.

Media analysts say such a move would be counterproductive and would punish legitimate journalism for the misdeeds of papers in the Murdoch group.

End Of The British Tabloid?

Equally important is whether the shock of the hacking episode will have the effect of taming Britain's tabloid culture, seen by many as vital to the health of its democracy. A weakened Murdoch empire now seems inevitable, following the government's decision to refer his News Corporation's bid to take over the whole of BSkyB to the Competition Commission, thus jeopardizing the deal.

Lloyd warns that even without statutory laws, a cowed tabloid press could lose its commercial appeal -- and its political clout.

"The British tabloids had the blackmailing threat of exposure," he argues. "That, I think, will be weaker now because politicians, especially, are now biting back and thus everybody, all the tabloids especially, will draw in their horns, swear that they will be good boys from now on, and possibly have to try to be."

The commercial impact of that, Lloyd adds, could be devastating and may presage the end of the British tabloid as we know it.

"People bought these papers because they were like they were and what this will do to the market if they do clean up their act is another matter. It may be that they cease to be as popular as they were," he says. "Paul Dacre, the editor of 'The Daily Mail,' has argued that if they lose the ability to print sex scandals, they will die -- and he may be right."

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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by: Oh-oh-io from: US
July 12, 2011 16:37
Is print not just in a serious, and accelerating, decline? I can't see the print newspaper industry lasting much longer, assuming the ipad and kindle lookalikes continue to proliferate.
So Dacre saying the Mail may die if they can't print sex scandal is rather pointless and disingenuous.
It's like saying the terminal cancer patient is doomed for not eating enough vegetables.

Eventually they will all have to go to some kind of monetisable format (or die) and despite all the bluster and outrage about the corrupt nature the relationship of media and politics, this whole story can also be seen as an interesting incident in a period of commercial uncertainty and positioning by the media players.

As for the sex scandals-their increasing prevalence in tabloids is also part and parcel of a changing social environment.
the NOTW affair may just be the early symptom of some new and major re-adjustment of the social and political environment.

The Profumo affair was reported in a much more restrained cultural environment of the early sixties, so the idea that sex scandals are likely to be prevented from exposure or adopting a more restrained approach will impede the press from revealing the truth is just very dishonest, and Dacre, as is his wont, not talking sense.
His argument is about triviality and salaciousness, which is one of the main marketing approaches of the Tabloids. Marketing and press freedom need to be 'de-conflated'.

I wish i could be confident that the new age of communication is going to inhibit the kinds of NOTW behavior we now see, but I would be prepared to bet that whatever online format comes to dominate the future, it will still have many of the features we are presently deploring.

by: Christopher Hobe Morrison from: Pine Bush, NY, USA
July 12, 2011 19:48
I always thought a tabloid was defined by the shape of the pages, which made it easier to turn the pages. The popular conception comes from the type of publication that uses this shape, that might be referred to as "downmarket" in readership and quality. I have always thought of The Times as probably the best newspaper in the world. I have always read it online, or did until it went behind the paywall. I am retired and can't afford it. The Scotsman is good, The Telegraph has some good writing in places such as obituaries and arts, but their politics are creepy. I like the Guardian/Observer's politics are usually okay but their writing is frequently self-indulgent drivel and I hate articles called live-blogs which are like tweets and you have to read them backward. Where are the editors? As for The Sun and The Mail, you don't have to read them. They remind me of what Doonesbury said about USA Today (Is it a newspaper? No, but it does enjoy first-amendment rights.). I feel like I have to wash my hands after reading The Mail or The Sun. They are the newspaper version of Fox News. Oh yeah Fox News is run by Murdock! No coincidence.

I don't know whether newspapers NEED to be printed on paper. Most of my news comes from radio or internet television (France24 or Al Jezeera for television because I am not allowed to watch BBC News), but I do listen to a lot of stations including the BBC networks. I get RSS feeds from more places than I can list here, from all over the world. I read as many British papers as I can, and a few American ones in the mix. I don't get The New York Times, both because it is also behind a paywall I can't afforc and because it is so very self-indulgent as to be useless if you get the wire services. What really counts as far as newspapers are concerned is that they are coherent essays, text, and proper editing is as important as good writing. A good editor will print or broadcast stories that help people to understand the world they live in rather than just those who get people excited for a few minutes. This is why a good editor must be someone who understands how writers work and also has a good understanding of exactly what a newspaper, magazine, television or radio network should be doing. An editor must understand the business end, but not allow it to take over. If he does, he should be running something else.

People have seen Murdock going his way for some time now, and they seem to have felt that this is where newspapers have to go if they want to be profitable and stay in business. Again, news outlets do have to maintain some level of profit in order to keep doing what they do, but if profit is everything they aren't news outlets anymore, just an intellectual fast food joint. Just what form news outlets should come in isn't important, as long as they continue to be available to everyone. People do have to be kept informed in order to be good citizens. If people can get the news the next thing is to make sure that they contain real news, that is not just sex and money scandals and who is being kicked off Big Brother or whatever. After this figure out how to make them profitable, although if what you want is riches you need to open a casino rather than a newspaper. I can only cross my fingers, say a little prayer, and hope that if the quality is there people will be want to continue getting them and in that case ways will be found to keep them going in some profitable form.

by: American from: USA
July 13, 2011 18:35
Will someone please post here what the terms:

"Wapping headquarters" and "up-market newspapers"

signify. I'm missing the 'decision tree(s) involved, I think.

Thank you, in advance, for your help.
In Response

by: Dr. O. Ralph Raymond from: Fort Lauderdale, FL USA
July 22, 2011 13:17
For "American" asking for definition of terms: "Wapping headquarters" refers to the London area where newspapers were based--near Fleet Street. Murdoch's outfit remained there. "Up-scale newspapers" are non-tabloids which are supposed to have higher journalistic standards, a more balanced (though not necessarily non-partisan nor non-ideological) approach to news analysis, to avoid the more sensationalist and salacious fare that is the essence of the tabloid press. "U-scale newspapers" in Britain would include: The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman." The argument that the loss of the tabloid press, or its transformation into something less murder- and sex-obsessed would damage British democracy is utter rubbish. The tabloid press plays on ignorance, mindlessness, and raw passion. Its handling of social and political news is shallow, slanted, overly brief, and often factually wrong. The complete collapse of the tabloid press would not injure public knowledge and understanding of political and social reality one bit. It might even encourage some British citizens to read something more worthwhile.

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