The New Press Watchdogs: Judges?

The latest twist in the phone-hacking scandal: the announcement by a judge heading the government inquiry that he'll conduct seminars on press ethics

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Lord Justice Brian Leveson speaks at the inquiry into alleged phone hacking by the British media / Reuters
LONDON -- The phone-hacking scandal here encircling the Murdoch media empire has been marked by each day bringing a new revelation more startling than the day before. Today's blaring headline in the Guardian, which has been the leader in breaking phone hacking stories, was that the News of the World, which has been the leader in hacking into phones, may have hacked into the phone of a woman whose eight-year-old daughter was abducted and murdered by a pedophile in 2000.

Adding to the salacious and sordid nature of the story, the Guardian reported that the phone had been given to the grieving mother, Sara Payne, by Rebekah Brooks, the now-disgraced former editor of the News of the World. Brooks, who has steadfastly denied she ever had any knowledge of phone hacking during her stewardship, said in response to the latest revelation that it was "unthinkable" that Payne may have been targeted by anyone working for News of the World.

Brooks and Payne had formed a close personal friendship after the editor took up the crusade for a law to allow parents to acquire more information about convicted sex offenders living in their area. During that campaign, which was successful, Brooks said the phone was given to Payne by News of the World to make it easier for the paper's reporters to keep in touch with her.

However staggering the latest revelations might be, they are not what leave me shaking my head in disbelief as I follow this scandal. On the contrary, it is an announcement by the judge who has been named to head a government-appointed inquiry.

"The focus of the inquiry,"Justice Brian Leveson said at a news conference on Thursday, "is the culture, practices and ethics of the press in the context of the latter's relationship with the public, the police and politicians."

I have read and reread that sentence so many times that I can recite it rote. But I still can't come to grips with it. A government committee is going to look into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press? And further, the committee is going to examine journalists' relationship with politicians, the police, and the public?

As Justice Leveson elaborated about his investigation, I was more dumbfounded. He said that beginning in October, he will conduct seminars on the ethics of journalism, as well as on investigative reporting. He also reminded journalists that he could require them to provide the committee with their files, but said that at this point, "I would rather invite" journalists, editors and owners to do so.

Press seminars? Sounds like something more appropriate for the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Probing investigative journalists, and "inviting" editors and owners to cooperate? Many a congressman might salivate at the notion of getting the files of Sy Hersh or Jane Mayer, or having Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. at the witness table. But American journalists go to jail before appearing even before a grand jury.

"It's unthinkable in America," said Jon Snow, the prominent anchor of Channel 4 News, said about the Leveson committee. "Absolutely."
Yet no one here seems troubled by this committee and its mandate. It's routine. Indeed, three prominent journalists are members of the committee, including David Bell, a former chairman of the Financial Times.

What explains the difference? The First Amendment, Snow says. Britain has no constitutional proscriptions on government regulation of the press.

An Official Secrets Act keeps British newspapers from publishing many classified government documents that would be published in the United States. British libel law allows public figures to keep newspapers from printing information that may tarnish their image. At the request of plaintiffs, who have included soccer stars and business executives, judges routinely issue "superinjunctions," which ban a newspaper from publishing even truthful information about an individual.
Then there is the cozy relationship between British journalists and British politicians, which has been the subject of considerable hand-wringing here in light of the phone hacking scandal.

"The truth is, we have all been in this together - the press, politicians and leaders of all parties - and yes, that includes me," Prime Minister David Cameron said a few weeks ago, in the early days of the scandal. "Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, get on top of the bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated."

Rupert Murdoch was the most assiduously courted press baron, because he had the most power, his newspapers and television station reaching a substantial percentage of the British population. He was a virtual member of the cabinet of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Blair's top aides wrote in his memoir. He was one of the first guests received by Conservative Party leader David Cameron upon becoming prime minister -- entering through the back door as Mr. Murdoch, to some amusement, told a parliamentary committee hearing last week.

But we American journalists should be careful about becoming holier than thou on this matter of relationships with politicians. Our relationships may not be as open and brazen as in Britain, but they are potentially as damaging. Many a front-page story or scoop comes from a journalist's having formed a strong bond with a politician, or having curried favor by writing favorable stories--and withholding critical ones.

One final thought on the differences between American and British journalism. At American newspapers, there is a separation between editorial and news reporting. At no newspaper is that more evident than at the Wall Street Journal, where over the years, its editorial page has been staunchly conservative, while the reporting has been politically straight, often exposing government practices and programs that the editorial board commends.

At American newspapers, there is an editor for the editorial page, and a different person edits the news pages. At British papers, there is only one editor, for both.

This is not to say that American papers are better. But there is a difference between the approaches, the practices, the ethos, and the ethics. We will see more as the Leveson committee holds its "seminars."