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For the British press, a clash between libel laws and media wrath

In this image from video, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch appears at Lord Justice Brian Leveson's inquiry in London, Wednesday April 25, 2012 to answer questions under oath about how much he knew about phone hacking at the News of the World tabloid.

Uncredited/AP Photo/Pool

I've been watching with great interest the British inquiry headed by Lord Leveson into the phone-hacking scandal. British media have been behaving badly for years, using illegal methods to delve into the private lives of public figures and ordinary citizens. It really became intolerable for British legislators when the tabloid News of the World hacked into the cellphone messages of a missing and murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

On Monday, former Prime Minister Tony Blair told the inquiry that he feared provoking media wrath and preferred instead to maintain a friendly relationship. It was, in fact, so close that after he left the job as prime minister, he was named godfather to NoW publisher Rupert Murdoch's daughter.

It is worth noting that British tabloid journalism is a trade completely unlike journalism anywhere else in the world. The thing I have always found odd is the apparent dichotomy between the toughest libel laws in the world and the frequent law-breaking and personal attacks by tabloid newspapers under those legal rules.

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As the newly appointed Public Editor of The Globe and Mail, I am also a member of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. The group met in Copenhagen earlier this month – minus me and the other Canadian ombudsmen and public editors who declined the trip to save money. I was sorry to miss the conference, but glad I could read a copy of the keynote speech by Westminster University Communications Professor Stephen Barnett, who gave some shocking examples of what he called the house of horrors of tabloid journalism. "Charlotte Church, the singer, told how News of the World (the tabloid which was shut down after the Milly Dowler case) published the fact that she was pregnant even before she had a chance to tell her parents and friends. They published the details of her father's affair, which drove her mother to attempt suicide. And then they told her mother that they would publish more details of his affair unless she granted them an exclusive interview about her attempted suicide. And if that wasn't sickening enough, they then demanded that her mother provide a photo of the wrists she had tried to slash during her attempted suicide. As we say in Britain, you couldn't make it up…."

Mr. Barnett described a culture "at best thoughtless and at worse malicious, amoral and corrupt" mostly but not exclusively in Britain's tabloid press. And he noted that this was reported by the information commissioner in 2006 that a private investigator was hired by newspapers and others to steal personal bank records, medical records, driving records, tax records, benefits records and police records.

So Mr. Barnett explained why the British press is such an outrider in terms of press standards in the world. First he said is the uniquely national (not regional) and competitive press. "The UK has 10 national daily newspapers, including 5 national tabloids, fighting like ferrets in a sack for readers and for survival. Very few are profitable, and the competition is intense. The temptation to break the rules in order to get scoops, especially celebrity stories which other papers don't have is huge. I think that explains a lot of the history of irresponsibility in the British press."

He said the other three reasons are that self-regulation has been tried and failed; that political leaders have not stood up to the large newspaper groups; and Rupert Murdoch. He described Mr. Murdoch's "cynical debasement of tabloid journalism" and said his approach to journalism "is actually poisonous."

"It is clear from the various biographies written about him that he has little time for public interest or investigative journalism, that he is much more concerned with the trivia and gossip of everyday life. The corporate culture within News Corp. did not promote independent, fearless journalism. It promoted intimidation, bullying and victimization, both as tools of journalism and tools of management. Though if you believe his evidence to the parliamentary select committee and to the Leveson inquiry, he didn't have a clue what was going on."

But to return to the law, clearly the practice of tabloid journalism is at odds with tough libel laws, which some say are so much tougher than other nations it has lead to "libel tourism" in which lawsuits are brought even when the primary publication was not in Britain.

Here is an interesting recent piece in the NYT on Britain's plans to revamp its libel laws in the future.

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While the British legislators haven't given details on the proposed legislation, they would do well to look at the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling on responsible journalism as a guide. Those rulings in 2009 expanded the boundaries of free speech when the court ruled that libel lawsuits will rarely succeed when a journalist has acted responsibly and when the stories are in the public interest. In perhaps a nod to the misdeeds in Britain, the court said free expression does not "confer a licence to ruin reputation."

Please let me know your thoughts on the different culture of journalism in Britain and Canada and whether you think we have something to teach them. Please comment below or send me an e-mail at

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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