LONDON (Reuters) - Benjamin Pell made a second career out of digging through the contents of people’s rubbish bags and selling it to the British press. The office cleaner, or ‘Benji the Binman’ as he was known to his clients on Fleet Street, regularly passed journalists the discarded papers of lawyers, celebrities and business executives. Benji’s low-tech operations in the late 1990s fed stories on a high-profile libel case and even Elton John’s flower bill.
British tabloids have a long and colorful history of finding new ways to get the story. From rooting through bins to hacking into email accounts, journalists at the so-called ‘redtops’ have long reveled in their roguish tactics.
Now, though, one tabloid has gone too far. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation said on Thursday it will close its Sunday scandal sheet News of the World after the next edition, as a result of an escalating phone hacking scandal.
Allegations that tabloid journalists from the paper hacked into the mobile voicemails of ordinary people -- including a schoolgirl who was later found murdered, and victims and families of the 2005 terrorist attack in London and dead British soldiers -- have outraged Britons and spurred calls for public inquiries into tabloid behavior, tougher regulation and limits on Murdoch’s ownership of media outlets.
The revelations, initially carried by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, are part of a long-running hacking scandal which initially emerged when the royal family realized their phones were being hacked. Until now it has focused on the News of the World’s pursuit of celebrities and royals.
As Britain descends into one of its regular bouts of self examination, it’s worth asking whether the country’s tabloids are really so much worse than those elsewhere. How do they stack up against rivals across the Atlantic, where the New York Post, another Murdoch property, faces a lawsuit over its claims that the maid at the center of an attempted rape case against Dominic Strauss-Kahn was a prostitute. And what about the rest of Europe?
Steven Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster University, is in no doubt that Britain’s tabloids go further than any others.
“Time and time again, particularly in the last three or four years when I travel for work, I‘m asked ‘what is it about our tabloid press?'” he told Reuters. “Why are they so outrageous and why is nothing done about it? I think the rest of the world looks on in astonishment frankly.”
So what is it that drives Britain’s tabloids in a race to the bottom? And what holds back the press in other countries?
In Britain, the short answer is that the tabloids push harder because they can. Or rather, in a ferociously competitive environment, they must -- because if they don’t do it, somebody else will.
Nick Davies, an investigative reporter for the Guardian and author of “Flat Earth News”, a book exposing Fleet Street excesses, has been a principal investigator of British tabloid scandals. Davies describes a “regime of fear” in British tabloid newsrooms in which journalists are terrified of getting fired unless they constantly produce exclusives. In that environment, ethics are often cast aside.
Tactics include Pell-style “bin-diving”, “blagging” -- pretending to be someone else to gain access to private information about an individual -- paying the police for tip-offs, and hiring private investigators to do the above or tail targets.
Some of those methods have been around for decades. It has long been known to insiders that British newspapers provide police sources with “bungs” -- slang for bribes. But with the advent of computers, voicemail and mobile phones, Fleet Street has become ever more sophisticated.
Some of Britain’s broadsheets are not totally averse to those methods, though Davies said that to his knowledge, the Guardian, The Financial Times and Britain’s Independent newspaper shun the use of illegal or unethical tactics and the employment of private detectives. “Everybody else did it,” he told Reuters. The Guardian and Financial Times are also among a handful of titles which refuse to follow a widespread tabloid practice of paying sources for a story.
Claire Enders, the head of the Enders Analysis media consultancy, said the British don’t turn to tabloids for facts. There are more tabloids read in Britain than elsewhere, “and I’ve always put that down to the fact that news on TV is impartial so people get their opinions from the tabloids.”
It doesn’t help that the press watchdog is so weak. In Britain, the press is self-regulated by a body called the Press Complaints Commission, which can require a paper to publish its rulings on complaints against newspapers but little else. Even its gentlest critics call it toothless; one British parliamentarian this week described it as a “fishnet condom”.
Given British tabloids’ reputation, why the outrage over this case? It’s one thing to target non-celebrities, many in the UK have noted this week, and another to go after the victims of crime and terrorism.
“Private Eye has long used the derogatory term ‘hacks’ to describe British journalists,” said Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, a satirical bi-weekly magazine that has made media excesses a staple of its columns and is also a vigorous critic of Murdoch’s companies. “We had no idea that under Rupert Murdoch’s malign influence, so many of them would take the term literally,” he told Reuters in an email.
Other democracies “every bit as strong and robust as ours” thrive without the “nauseating tabloid coverage and routine intrusion into ordinary people’s private lives,” said Westminster University’s Barnett.“ In terms of the tactics that they use and the way they routinely invade people’s privacy without any regard for the impact on those individuals, I think the Italians and others would still regard the British press as even below theirs. As do Americans.”
The United States has its share of tabloids full of punning headlines and lurid tales. But in general their journalists say they don’t go as far as their British counterparts.
One of the big differences between the two countries, according to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington D.C., boils down to economics. In the United States, newspapers generate about 75 to 80 percent of their revenue from advertisers while newspapers in the United Kingdom depend more on newsstand sales.
While British papers need to shout, “there is a tradition of the American press that is more serious,” says Rosenstiel. “That tradition has been encouraged by advertisers.” They are paying for space that is “credible and respectable.”
Some scandals, such as President Bill Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, are broken by serious magazines and rely not on hacking but on more traditional reporting methods. Michael Isikoff, the reporter for Newsweek Magazine who originally uncovered the story, says the concept of hacking didn’t even exist at that time.
“I adhered to the standard rules of journalistic practice,” Isikoff, who has since left Newsweek, told Reuters. “I never pretended to be anyone other than who I was -- a journalist for Newsweek.”
In Europe, stronger laws -- and what some argue is an innate aversion to sleaze -- limit the tactics of the tabloids.
In France, strict privacy laws bar newspapers and magazines from printing intrusive photographs of public figures in private moments. Frederic Gerschel, a senior journalist at the daily Le Parisien, previously worked at the glossy, celebrity-filled weekly Paris Match and says he has never heard of papers hiring private detectives, intercepting telephone calls or sending people out undercover to frame or trap public figures.
“Journalists don’t use the same methods as British tabloids. We don’t allow just anything -- there is a general respect,” he said. “A person who hacked into a mobile phone would be frowned upon by his peers. I‘m not saying everyone is whiter than white, but we respect a code. I have never come across journalists hacking into telephones or private conversations. Those are boundaries we have not yet crossed.”
French media work to a rule that reporting stops at the bedroom door - unless an issue with a public official’s private life affects how they perform their duties. Politicians often sue magazines if they print images of their romantic partners and seek retractions of defamatory articles.
That tradition of restraint earned the French media criticism recently when stories emerged that Strauss-Kahn, the French head of the IMF, had faced previous allegations of harassment. Now, as doubts about the credibility of his hotel maid accuser grow, Gershel feels the French approach has been vindicated.
“When I see how the U.S. media embellished the Strauss-Kahn story, I think that in the end we did things right in France,” Gershel said.
But there is a twist. French papers’ restraint may also be due to their frequent connections to broader business interests. Le Figaro, France’s top circulation daily, is owned by the Dassault Group, which owns companies like Dassault Aviation and whose CEO Serge Dassault is a Senator for the ruling UMP party. The daily Les Echos, one of France’s top business newspapers, is owned by Bernard Arnault, chief executive of luxury goods firm LVMH.
Germany’s Bild, read by about 12 million people each day and famous for its pictures of nude women on page one, regularly pays non-journalist sources for candid celebrity pictures and “can certainly give the Sun a run for their money,” according to Amanda Ball, senior lecturer in media law at Nottingham Trent University’s Center for Broadcasting and Journalism.
But Germany also has stringent privacy laws, and even its tabloids are cautious about reporting on the private lives of political leaders and celebrities - unless they cross a loosely defined boundary and do something flagrantly public.
More than a decade ago, when the married state premier of Lower-Saxony and future Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was having an affair with a female Bild journalist not a single word about the poorly kept secret was ever published.
“Journalists have extra-marital affairs too,” a former minister told Reuters. “Why should political leaders be treated any differently than journalists or publishers? They all have private lives and they all make mistakes. Having mistresses has been a privilege of power for centuries, all the way back to the kings and Kaisers. It’s no one else’s business.”
In Italy, a country whose biggest private broadcaster Mediaset is owned by the family of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, it’s the serious newspapers -- Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, La Stampa -- which have published information gained by wire-taps.
In the past year, Italians have been treated to an almost daily diet of steamy transcripts of phone conversations among young women attending parties thrown by Berlusconi, who is on trial for paying for sex with an under-aged woman, charges he denies.
Italy’s government has been trying to pass a bill curbing the use of wiretaps by investigators and the publication of leaked phone conversations by newspapers. Critics say it is an effort to muzzle the press and will help criminals. Wire-taps played a major role in an investigation which last May led to a jail sentence for former Bank of Italy chief Antonio Fazio, over a 2005 takeover battle for Italian bank Antonveneta.
“In most cases it’s the lawyers who leak the wire-taps,” said one Italian investigative reporter, who refused to be named. “In some rare cases it’s the investigators, and in even rarer occurrences the magistrates.”
Berlusconi’s son, Mediaset Vice-Chairman Pier Silvio Berlusconi, said last week he was worried that the group’s connection with the country’s increasingly unpopular premier may hurt the broadcaster. “I‘m a bit scared by the atmosphere -- that the resentment toward my father may translate into a general attitude toward the company,” he told journalists at a late-night press-conference.
Britain’s phone tapping scandal has already hit Murdoch’s News of the World.
Exactly how far public outrage will change the broader tabloid press, though, is hard to tell.
“I certainly think there’ll be more pressure for us to have a more robust system of regulation,” Nottingham Trent’s Ball told Reuters.
At the newsstand outside King’s Cross railway station in London on Wednesday evening, vendor Thomas Treadwell is not so sure. The phone-hacking scandal was definitely helping sell more copies of rival newspapers, but the Sun and the Times are his best sellers and haven’t been noticeably affected, he said, shrugging as he loaded drinks into a fridge.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Saba in New York, Georgina Prodhan and Mike Holden in London, Catherine Bremer and Leila Abboud in Paris, Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin, Valentina Za in Milan; Writing by Sara Ledwith; Editing by Simon Robinson/Janet McBride