LONDON (Reuters) - Widespread revulsion over Britain’s phone hacking scandal could have far-reaching implications for media rivals who might otherwise be tempted to gloat over the problems of press baron Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp empire.
Politicians and the public have turned on the media since the news that the now-defunct News of the World tabloid illegally hacked the phones of possibly thousands of people, including a murdered child, to produce scoops.
The practices are familiar to many in the cut-throat world of tabloid journalism. But the scale has taken Britain by surprise and the fallout has been extensive, leading to the closure of News of the World, the arrest and resignation of key figures and the withdrawal of News Corp’s attempt to buy the shares it does not own in broadcaster BSkyB.
The focus has now turned to preventing similar abuses happening again, with proposals ranging from privacy laws to an independent industry watchdog that has real power, to freer access to information generally.
“You can understand what’s happened,” said Max Clifford, Britain’s most prominent PR guru who took legal action against News of the World for phone hacking and won a hefty settlement.
“Of course it’s totally wrong, but it’s really part of the fight for survival and dirty tricks have been brought in to help that survival,” he told Reuters.
Britain’s tabloids compete fiercely against each other for a shrinking readership, employ aggressive and sometimes illegal reporting techniques and produce the kind of lurid stories that comparable newspapers abroad would balk at running.
Publishers also face the onslaught of celebrity websites offering round-the-clock coverage and social media such as Twitter which users employ to break news and even breach court orders that can silence British newspapers.
Some commentators are warning against a rush to impose draconian curbs on press freedom.
The most likely outcome is the introduction of an independent body with the power to censure newspapers, including fines, that break its rules, some commentators say.
This could replace the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) which has been criticized, some say unfairly, for being “toothless” in coping with a crisis that is expected to spread beyond Murdoch’s stable of newspapers.
“Hopefully if something like that was to come about then at least a plus would come out of all this cancer which has engulfed journalism,” said Clifford, who negotiates front-page “kiss-and-tell” and other story deals with newspapers.
He said any organization monitoring the press should include people who have “got the courage of their convictions and know the system and can find that half-way house between everybody’s right to privacy and freedom of the press.”
The alternative, he said, could be strict privacy laws with more serious consequences for the media in Britain.
Jennifer McDermott, a partner at law firm Withers who has worked on high-profile libel and confidentiality cases, expects tougher regulation to be imposed.
“The PCC is going to end up being overtaken by a new form of independent regulation more along the Ofcom model,” she said, referring to the regulator and competition authority for the communications industries.
She, along with other lawyers and academics, played down concerns over press freedom. She said that even if privacy legislation were introduced, it would probably be similar to European conventions that are already part of English law.
Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, said press freedom need not be undermined by new regulation.
“I think that notion that there is some danger to press freedom is grossly overblown -- we have a system of self regulation that has clearly failed. We have to accept now that it has been left up to the press to do themselves, and they failed,” he said.
Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed Lord Justice Brian Leveson to head an inquiry into the phone hacking allegations and, more broadly, the relationship between the press and police and whether existing press regulation failed.
But the tabloids could try to blunt the impact of the inquiry.
“They will be looking at ways in which they can defend their interests,” said Brian Cathcart, co-founder of the “Hacked Off” lobby group angered by the phone hacking scandal.
“And their interests are very specific and clear -- to protect the way in which they make their living now from any attack by the inquiry.”
Healthy competition between newspapers was vital to press ethics, commentator Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian newspaper which broke the phone hacking story.
Murdoch’s British publishing arm has been accused of wielding too much influence, partly through its control of more than a third of the newspaper market.
“It is thanks to the Guardian rather than the police or parliament that Murdoch is choking over his breakfast toast,” Jenkins said.
“That is why press pluralism must be the overriding concern of any regulatory regime, and no organization should have more than a 30 percent share of any definable media market.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, additional reporting by Clare Kane and William Maclean