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Response to British Phone-Hacking Scandal Sets New Standard, Says W&L Professor

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s decision to shut down the British tabloid News of the World in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal sets a whole new standard for the response to a newspaper’s ethical lapse, according to Edward Wasserman, media ethics professor at Washington and Lee University.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen ethical breaches have this kind of strategic consequence,” Wasserman said, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at W&L. “It’s a remarkable story. I’ve never seen a news organization go down in flames because it did wrong. By and large, they clean house, punish a few people, grovel to their readers, and then they go on.”

Murdoch announced he would close the 168-year-old tabloid, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, following allegations that reporters bribed police officers for information and hacked into voice-mail messages.

“This was a tremendously harmful and painful and scandalous bit of misbehavior,” said Wasserman. “It provoked an enormous expression of public revulsion over intrusive and callous disregard for the harms that could be done. These are, front and center, issues of professional ethics in journalism.”

Wasserman said that in some respects, the wonder is it took so long for the British public’s outrage to take hold. For years, he said, the reporters were undoubtedly engaging in such unethical behaviors. But the targets were rarely ordinary citizens; more often, they were members of the royal family or other famous individuals.

“It was never clear how private conversations of Prince Charles were acquired, but it can’t have been by legitimate means,” Wasserman said. “But there was not any outrage as long as ordinary people weren’t getting skewered. Then there was the case of the murdered schoolgirl whose messages were hacked and even erased. That changed everything.”

The British press, Wasserman said, has always operated with a much looser set of ethical guidelines than the U.S. press. And the British press has long viewed the U.S. media as being docile and much too worried about angering people in power. The U.S. media frowns upon a reporter bribing one’s way into a hotel or posing as an employee to gain entrance to a hospital. The British media, however, routinely engage in such behavior, he added.

Given those differences in media culture, Wasserman said, the decision to shutter the tabloid in response to these ethical breaches make it clear how far over the line the journalists had gone.

“There are other ripples to the story, of course,” he added. “There’s every reason to suspect that the scandal has given News Corp. a pretext to close a property that made less and less sense in terms of its UK market strategy, since a substantial part of the newspaper’s readership is likely to be recaptured by Murdoch’s Sun, another downmarket tablolid, which would then start publishing Sundays as well as weekdays.

“I think Murdoch’s issues with his U.S. media properties (the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and the New York Post) are likely to be more political. The people at his company, News Corp., are mindful that they have some vulnerability here. So one of the reason that they moved so quickly and harshly was to stop the rot and make as powerful a statement as possible that they disapproved of what’s going on.”

Wasserman believes the scandal will strongly affect the world’s media, and that reporters who might have been tempted to dabble in such activities will recognize the potential ramifications.

At the same time, he noteed that cell-phone hacking does point to many unresolved issues related to new communications media.

“What was done in the News of the World case was so clearly over the line that it doesn’t seem, initially, to have that many lessons,” said Wasserman. “But there are some gray areas to consider. Should a reporter, for instance, log on to a person’s Facebook page, misrepresent himself or herself by using somebody else’s sign-on, to gather information? This is one of those instances where there is a certain amount of deception, but it’s not as transparently wrong as, say, wire-tapping somebody, which is plainly illegal.

“There are other areas of new media that open up where lesser degrees of deception are involved and where it’s not clearly against the law.”