Theories of the British Press

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I have been somewhat skeptical of the claims that the Murdoch scandals are going to jump the Atlantic, because my sense has always been that the British press really is different--far more aggressive and edgy than their American cousins.  This sort of phone hacking has been widespread there for a long time.  Scotland Yard has now expanded its investigation to 31 publications and hundreds of journalists, a fact that has gone largely unremarked by those who were extremely interested in the case right up to the point where the evidence started suggesting that this was a British problem, not a Murdoch problem.


If it is indeed a British problem, however, the question is: why?  Some of the suggestions that have suggested themselves are obvious, others deliciously counterintuitive.  British libel law, for example, is actually much stricter than US libel law.  But a twitter correspondent suggests that this may, paradoxically, have encouraged hacking: you can't take the risk of reporting something that's false, so instead you go to illegal lengths to report things that are true.

Other suggestions:

  1. Regulatory glitch:  US phone companies largely force people to change their voicemail password, allegedly because they fear getting in trouble with the FCC if they don't.  (Alternative: they're just nicer than British phone compnanies).  The British phone providers mostly didn't.  This is how all the voicemails were "hacked".  If the phone companies had had better security policy, most of this scandal would never have happened.
  2. The British papers are national, rather than local, so it's a more brutally competitive media environment.
  3. By accident of history, British media culture just evolved differently.
  4. I (and my British correspodents) have it wrong, and this is about to break wide open in America too.
Kevin Drum ponders a related question: why does the British press have so much influence over their politicians? (Contrary to the perception here, my understanding is that Blair and Brown were at least as tight with Murdoch as the current conservative government) He offers another counterintuitive possibility: strict campaign finance rules mean that British politicians need to spend more time sucking up to the press:

File this under "watch what you wish for," I guess. In America, vast pools of money in politics give the business community enormous power to influence elections. That's bad. But the alternative, apparently, is to get the money out and instead give media moguls enormous power to influence elections. Pick your poison.

I don't find this a shocking thought--it's about what libertarians have been saying about campaign finance rules for a long time.  Arguably the British experience proves the truth of this.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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