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Dirty digging

The late, great Molly Ivins warns (in Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?) about the risk to journalists of becoming "power groupies" who identify more with the people they cover than with their readers. In the culture being exposed by the escalating phone hacking scandals the opposite happened: politicians and police became "publicity groupies" who feared tabloid wrath to such an extent that they identified with the interests of press barons more than those of the constituents they are sworn to protect. I put the apparent inconsistency between politicians' former acquiescence and their current baying for blood down to Stockholm syndrome: this is what happens when you hold people hostage through fear and intimidation for a few decades. When they can break free, oh, do they want revenge.

The consequences are many and varied, and won't be entirely clear for a decade or two. But surely one casualty must have been the balanced view of copyright frequently argued for in this column. Murdoch's media interests are broad-ranging. What kind of copyright regime do you suppose he'd like?

But the desire for revenge is a really bad way to plan the future, as I said (briefly) on Monday at the Westminster Skeptics.

For one thing, it's clearly wrong to focus on News International as if Rupert Murdoch and his hired help were the only contaminating apple. In the 2006 report What price privacy now? the Information Commissioner listed 30 publications caught in the illegal trade in confidential information. News of the World was only fifth; number one, by a considerable way, was the Daily Mail (the Observer was number nine). The ICO wanted jail sentences for those convicted of trading in data illegally, and called on private investigators' professional bodies to revoke or refuse licenses to PIs who breach the rules. Five years later, these are still good proposals.

Changing the culture of the press is another matter.
When I first began visiting Britain in the late 1970s, I found the tabloid press absolutely staggering. I began asking the people I met how the papers could do it.

"That's because *we* have a free press," I was told in multiple locations around the country. "Unlike the US." This was only a few years after The Washington Post backed Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's investigation of Watergate, so it was doubly baffling.

Tom Stoppard's 1978 play Night and Day explained a lot. It dropped competing British journalists into an escalating conflict in a fictitious African country. Over the course of the play, Stoppard's characters both attack and defend the tabloid culture.

"Junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with power to dictate where responsible journalism begins," says the naïve and idealistic new journalist on the block.

"The populace and the popular press. What a grubby symbiosis it is," complains the play's only female character, whose second marriage - "sex, money, and a title, and the parrots didn't harm it, either" - had been tabloid fodder.

The standards of that time now seem almost quaint. In the movie Starsuckers, filmmaker Chris Atkins fed fabricated celebrity stories to a range of tabloids. All were published. That documentary also showed in action illegal methods of obtaining information. In 2009, right around the time The Press Complaints Commission was publishing a report concluding, "there is no evidence that the practice of phone message tapping is ongoing".

Someone on Monday asked why US newspapers are better behaved despite First Amendment protection and less constraint by onerous libel laws. My best guess is fear of lawsuits. Conversely, Time magazine argues that Britain's libel laws have encouraged illegal information gathering: publication requires indisputable evidence. I'm not completely convinced: the libel laws are not new, and economics and new media are forcing change on press culture.

A lot of dangers lurk in the calls for greater press regulation. Phone hacking is illegal. Breaking into other people's computers is illegal. Enforce those laws. Send those responsible to jail. That is likely to be a better deterrent than any regulator could manage.

It is extremely hard to devise press regulations that don't enable cover-ups. For example, on Wednesday's Newsnight, the MP Louise Mensch, head of the DCMS committee conducting the hearings, called for a requirement that politicians disclose all meetings with the press. I get it: expose too-cosy relationships. But whistleblowers depend on confidentiality, and the last thing we want is for politicians to become as difficult to access as tennis stars and have their contact with the press limited to formal press conferences.

Two other lessons can be derived from the last couple of weeks. The first is that you cannot assume that confidential data can be protected simply by access rules. The second is the importance of alternatives to commercial, corporate journalism. Tom Watson has criticized the BBC for not taking the phone hacking allegations seriously. But it's no accident that the trust-owned Guardian was the organization willing to take on the tabloids. There's a lesson there for the US, as the FBI and others prepare to investigate Murdoch and News Corp: keep funding PBS.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

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