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British Media Ethics Inquiry Probes Press, Government Ties

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrives to give evidence before the Leveson Inquiry at the High Court in London.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrives to give evidence before the Leveson Inquiry at the High Court in London.
As Britain's political leaders testify to an ethics panel this week about their relationship with the media, one question dominates the proceedings.

That is, are Britain's politicians too close to the media -- or too afraid of it -- for the country's good?

Among those who have already appeared before the ethics panel led by Judge Brian Leveson since June 11 are former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, current Labour leader Ed Miliband, and former Conservative Prime Minister John Major.

All of them, plus Prime Minister David Cameron, due to appear on June 13, are testifying in Britain's yearlong enquiry into illegal practices by journalists, chiefly phone hacking.

Although the tabloid where the scandal began, Rupert Murdoch's "News of the World," closed in July 2011, the scandal keeps spreading.

It has already led to the arrest or resignation of dozens of journalists, political operatives, and officials.

Now, questions about the relationship of the country's top political figures to the press – and particularly Murdoch – are creating a crisis for Britain's political parties as well.

"We are certainly learning that the political establishment became, certainly over the last couple of decades, very close indeed to elements of the press," says Martin Moore, director of Media Standards Trust, an independent organization concerned with news standards.

'Fear And Favor'

According to Moore, this has been particularly true of Murdoch's News Corporation and News International, since they dominated circulation, with almost 40 percent of total circulation among the U.K. press, but also applies to some other media organizations.

He says the close relationship is one of both "fear" and "favor" and each endangers Britain's body politic.

Suggestions of the level of fear -- and anger -- the press can inspire in politicians came as Brown appeared on June 11. Brown, prime minister from 2007 to 2010, fiercely attacked Murdoch, denying the press baron's claim that Brown phoned him to say the Labour Party "would make war on his company" after Murdoch's "The Sun" switched its support to the Conservative Party in 2010.

But it is the subject of favors that interests the ethics inquiry more.

A composite photo of News Corporation Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry.
A composite photo of News Corporation Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry.

This week's hearings have repeatedly looked at whether Britain's current ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has been too cozy with Murdoch's empire.

That includes Cameron's hiring of a former editor of the "News of the World," Andy Coulson, as a top media adviser after he left the paper in 2007 amid an earlier phone-hacking scandal.

Cameron says he was right to give Coulson a "second chance," but the ex-aide's resignation early last year and his subsequent arrest by London police investigating the recent phone-hacking scandal have put Cameron on the defensive.

Similarly, the government's culture office is at the center of questions about whether it tried to smooth the way for Murdoch to expand his empire last year by taking over BSkyB, Britain's largest pay-TV provider.

Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt has been on the defensive since one of his aides, Adam Smith, resigned when it became known he was in close contact about Murdoch's takeover bid with one of the media mogul's lobbyists after the "News of the World" crisis exploded last summer.

Search For Remedies

The question before the ethics inquiry is not to decide if any of Britain's politicians have done wrong. That is beyond the scope of the proceedings.

But the inquiry has already shed light on how close the relationship between Britain's press and its politicians has become -- and many hope it will suggest ways to remedy the problems.

"As soon as you scrape the surface, you realize that there is an enormous amount of really intimate relationships between those two elites -- between the political elite and the [tabloid] media elite," says Natalie Fenton, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths College of the University of London "And that has all sorts of implications for the development of policy, for the passage of legislation, for political agendas, all the ways in which politicians are thinking about how to develop policy, how it might appear in the media, what they can do to influence that."

The ethics inquiry will produce a report to the government in October which is expected to include both an assessment of the extent of journalists' illegal activities and recommendations for reforming the current system of press regulation.

Among the issues the report addresses could well be whether the media should be left to regulate itself through the existing Press Complaints Commission or whether an independent board is needed.

Similarly, the report may address whether an independent body, rather than politicians, should make decisions related to the press in order to avoid the risk of conflicts of interest.

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