In Defense of Sleazy JournalismS

As delightful as it's been to watch Rupert Murdoch's British fiefdom slowly drown in a foul swamp of wickedness and criminality, it's worth remembering that all good reporters are amoral monsters and that without a lot of highly questionable behavior on the part of sordid hacks around the world, we wouldn't know half the things we need to know.

Reporting is basically a variant of rudeness. Done right, it amounts to being indiscreet, airing dirty laundry, telling on someone, calling them out, embarrassing them, usually after lying to them to gain their confidence. As Janet Malcolm famously put it, "every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

And that's just run-of-the-mill, everyday journalism. Even in this context, the actions of Murdoch's minions in England are truly indefensible: Illegally accessing voicemails, paying private investigators to infiltrate politicians' bank accounts, lying to Parliament, and staging a vast cover-up. It is a good thing that they have been exposed, and that the wheels of British justice appear finally to be catching up to them. But it's not going to end there, and that's what worries me.

In Defense of Sleazy JournalismS

Rupert Murdoch and son James Murdoch in London this weekend (left); Rupert with former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks (right) (AP)

The contours of this scandal, with its satisfyingly steady drip of revelations and exquisitely cast villains, make it easy to lump all of the Murdoch reporters' behavior in the same illicit category: Hacking voicemails? Despicable! Bank accounts? Vile! Medical records? Sinful!

But wait—how did the Sun obtain medical records about Gordon Brown's son in 2006, an action that the Guardian reported alongside revelations that Murdoch reporters launched a decade-long "data assault" on the future prime minister? It's not clear, so it's impossible at this point to know how low the Sun sank to get them (and News International is denying that it ever did get them). But go ask any respectable American reporter what they would have done if, in 2006, they'd received an illicit copy of Dick Cheney's medical records in the mail. I guarantee you the answer is not, "Call the police."

In other words, not everything the Murdoch reporters are accused of is objectionable per se. So when "bribing public officials" becomes part of the charge-sheet, keep in mind that that's another way of saying "paying public officials for information." Granted, it appears the News International game was basically a protection racket that goes beyond simply greasing a few law enforcement palms in exchange for information. But paying sources is a time-honored tradition in England, and the practice resulted in perhaps the most important act of public-service journalism in contemporary British history: The Telegraph's revelation that ministers of parliament were abusing their expense accounts to the tune of millions of dollars. The evidence for that story—a CD containing detailed spreadsheets of all parliamentary expense claims—was obtained by the Telegraph by "bribing a public official" (through a middleman) to turn it over. That's the sort of "bribery" that some are now proposing News Corp. be prosecuted for in the U.S. under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller has called for a wide-ranging U.S. investigation into Murdoch's papers, hoping perhaps to turn up evidence of more malfeasance. Maybe they were "bribing" people here! If that's going to be a problem, though, someone should consult TMZ and the National Enquirer (and us!), three news outlets that often pay sources of information—sometimes even cops and other public officials. Not to mention ABC News, which paid Casey Anthony more than $200,000 for photos and videos of her murdered daughter. The National Enquirer may be a sleazy tabloid, but its amoral tactics nailed Sen. Rockefeller's former colleague John Edwards in perhaps the most stunning political story since Monica Lewinsky. Yes, any criminal hacking that occurred in the jurisdiction of the U.S. ought to be investigated. But it would be rather unseemly if Rockefeller were to end up targeting the sort of "bribery" that can ferret out cheating senators.

These distinctions are important because the calls for "press regulation" are already cropping up in England. On BBC's Newsnight last week, former BBC executive and panelist Greg Dyke said "there's going to have to be regulation, there's no doubt." And British Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for a parliamentary inquiry "that will look at the practice and ethics of the British press [and] will look at our regulations of the press."

On the same Newsnight program, hacking victim Steve Coogan rather eloquently—and terrifyingly—laid out the case for radically restricting the behavior of tabloid reporters in a debate with former News of the World features editor Paul McMullen:

The whole notion of press freedom is a smokescreen for selling newspapers with tittle tattle. And you hide behind this whenever it comes up—it's absolute BS.... The broadsheets have colluded to some extent with the tabloids, because the think the price of a free press is letting these people shovel crap. The thing is, you don't have to do that. You can have a free press, and you can regulate the press.

So what do you "regulate"? Voicemail hacking? It's already illegal. Snooping into bank accounts? Likewise. A clue for the sort of restrictions Coogan has in mind could be found in his exasperated response to McMullan's specious attempt to justify the phone snooping: "This guy sat outside my house! It's just a risible, deplorable profession." Well, yes: Listening in your voicemails is indeed risible and deplorable. But sitting outside your house? That doesn't quite cry out for regulation.

In Defense of Sleazy Journalism

Trouble is, in the wave of justifiable outrage over Murdoch's excesses, that's the sort of behavior that is liable to get clipped by regulatory efforts. Today it's Brown's family medical records and tax documents. The question is what happens when those tax documents reveal fraud, or the medical records reveal a critical illness hidden from the public. Today it's voicemails deliberately hacked into by reporters or private investigators working on their behalf. But what happens under Coogan's proposed regulatory regime when a reporter happens to gain access to a voicemail—or email, or bank record—stolen by someone else? Would that be permitted? If not, then what about voicemails or emails or bank records owned by corporations?

British journalists already toil under some of the most restrictive libel laws in the western world and have to contend with ludicrous "super-injunctions" against reporting that make a judicial secret of their very existence. All sorts of good stories require sleazy, gross, "risible" behavior that falls short of outright criminality, and the last thing England needs is a cowed press corps worried about bringing down sanctions for coloring outside the journalistic lines. And the last people you want writing the playbook for acceptable journalistic behavior are the politicians you are supposed to be covering.