Britain's unruly media likely to face new rules

SMU Journalism Professor Tony Pederson, an expert on the British tabloids, talks about the scandal swirling about the News of the World and the threat of government regulation of the press.

The media throughout the world like to portray themselves as the defender of the public good, a steadfast bulwark against government excess, a fearless watchdog ready to root out criminality.

But what happens when the press goes rogue, when reporters and editors break the law, and violate common decency as well? When reporters hack into a dead girl's phone to hear her messages, pay off police when convenient, and conceal their identifies and use hidden cameras to stage "gotcha" moments?

The British press is in shambles as never before, with the disgraced News of the World tabloid to be shut forever Sunday after being accused of using these corrupt practices in its quest for circulation-boosting scoops.

Britain's randy, rambunctious tabloid press is supposed to be kept in check by the industry-funded Press Complaints Commission, but its investigation into the phone hacking scandal had no teeth, leading Prime Minister David Cameron to call for a whole new system to force newspapers to live up to basic standards. . .

Tony Pederson, a Southern Methodist University journalism professor who teaches students about the British media, said most regulatory systems fall short. But he said an informal, market-driven system seems to have worked in the News of the World case since the paper was shut down after losing the support of advertisers wanting to distance themselves from the paper.

"That's what's supposed to happen," he said. "I would argue the self-regulatory system worked. But in terms of government regulation, the chances of getting it right are very slim. I can't imagine a scenario under which it might be productive."

He also said it is wrong to overlook the quality of some British tabloid journalism. When he brings American students to London each summer for journalism courses, they are usually impressed by some of the tabloids _ once they get past the shock of the topless Page Three girls in The Sun, another Murdoch title.

"The U.K. tabloids are extremely aggressive, sexually charged in their approach, but there is also very good political reporting and the editorial pages are very well read, usually conservative and populist," he said. "It's aggressive celebrity sex journalism mixed with very solid reporting."

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