Phone-hacking scandal has had ‘chilling effect’ on British newsrooms

The New York Times | Guardian
Clear consequences of the phone-hacking scandal so far: arrests; (arguably) a corporate breakup, and Tuesday’s news that eight people who worked for News of the World would face criminal charges. Less clear: the long-term consequences for British newsgathering.

The New York Times’ John F. Burns looks at how the phone-hacking mess is playing out in British newsrooms:

Already, some who work at British newspapers say, the scandal has had a chilling effect on newsrooms, with editors, reporters and their proprietors less eager to trumpet splashy exposes that might involve, or be perceived to involve, less than ethical standards of news gathering.

Anyone who’s followed the phone-hacking case even casually might venture that a “chilling effect” is precisely what many British newsrooms needed. But some believe British tabloids have ferreted out some important stories with their borderline tactics:

One who has taken this view is Ken Clarke, a Conservative who is justice minister in Mr. Cameron’s cabinet. At the Leveson inquiry last month, he provoked condemnation by warning of the “chilling effect” of some of the testimony before the panel, and said new statutory controls on the press were not necessary.

Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, a left-of-center paper that escaped taint during the scandal, took a similar view. In an interview, he called the criminal charges “a shaming day for British journalism,” but defended some of the tabloids’ practices, saying that in some cases lawbreaking by journalists was defensible. “The Independent hasn’t hacked anyone’s phone, but there might be a case where we felt that we had to,” he said.

Note, though, that Clarke was arguing in part against increased regulation of the press — a position presumably consistent with his political philosophy — and not necessarily in favor of hiring private investigators to cockroach their way into a missing girl’s voice mail.

In writing about how British papers played their stories about Tuesday’s criminal charges, the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade says the tabloids’ meager coverage proves “my point yet again about there being two presses in Britain.” News Corp. owns papers on both sides of that Greensladian taxonomy, and it owned News of the World. It didn’t have any comment on the arrests, according to the Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh writes.

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