News of the World scandal shows maybe London's media environment isn't so great after all

07/20/2011 10:07 AM

One of the parts of England I was most excited to experience while I was in London earlier this month was its vibrant media culture with all the aggressive, competitive newspapers fighting over readers.

After the last three years of watching Kentucky newspapers shrink in size and staff and seeing the ranks of the Frankfort press corps dwindle, I thought it would be refreshing to have so many thick papers from which to choose each morning.

Then, I happened to arrive in England on the day the story broke that journalists from the News of the World tabloid had hacked into a murder victim’s voicemail.

And as the story unfolded bit by bit over the next few days, the News of the World folded as well. And to my initial disappointment, I failed to get to news stands in time on July 10 to buy that final copy before it sold out.

But as the saga keeps getting more sordid, perhaps it’s better I didn’t touch the last edition of the toxic tabloid after all.

It’s unthinkable that newspaper reporters anywhere would try to break into private citizens’ voicemails. It’s also hard for me to understand what those reporters hoped to glean from messages left by frantic family members of victims of the 7/7 London bombing, for instance.

All of that was underscored yesterday during the televised Parliament hearings with MPs grilling News International’s godfather, Rupert Murdoch, and his two protégés – son James and former head of the company’s British news operations Rebekah Brooks.

The questioning and their answers added to some wider troubling trends in British journalism that this saga exposed for me:

  • There seems to be a whole other level of coziness between some news executives and politicians in London. Consider that while Brooks denied some accusations about how she socializes with Prime Minister David Cameron, she still described him as “a friend” during her testimony yesterday. And she wasn’t referring to the Facebook variety. That comes after she invited Gordon Brown, while he was prime minister, to her wedding. And he and his wife attended.
  • State regulation of the press is being actively considered. It raises some awkward questions about whether the media needs a formal organization to keep watch over it – and more awkward questions about how it can enforce it. Perhaps even more concerning is that some politicians have suggested passing laws to regulate the media.
  • Then there is the bias embedded within the news articles – not just the commentaries, columns and editorials. One MP, Neil Kinnock, suggested this week that newspapers should be “balanced” and free of bias. That prompted this reaction from Daily Telegraph political reporter Daniel Knowles in today’s edition: “Even if you get away from the comment pages, news will always be in one way or another slightly biased – not to promote a political opinion, but because people choose which newspaper to buy based on what they find important.”
    It’s embedded in the competitive culture in London that even news stories carry with them tinges of opinion.

All that is on top of the core issues that prompted Parliament and Scotland Yard to further investigate the illegal voicemail-tapping and bribery practices of former_ News of the World_ journalists.

So it’s hard not to think that maybe Kentucky journalism — even with all the cutbacks and layoffs — could actually be worse off than it is.

- Ryan Alessi_


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