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Tim Blagg

A tabloid mess

Seeing journalistic standards decline

The British press — in fact, the nation’s news media — has gotten itself into a terrible snarl.

As the phone hacking scandal has unfolded, it’s become clear that some of the country’s newspapers — most notably those owned by Australian press magnate Rupert Murdoch — have been involved in scurrilous and unethical tactics for decades.

They’ve apparently been paying for stories, listening in on personal calls, bribing public officials and who knows what else in their pursuit of scandal. They’re accused of threatening people with negative coverage, reading personal emails, harassing movie stars and their children and a host of other unpalatable acts.

Now we find out that the BBC, the official government source of radio and TV news and entertainment, harbored a child molester for years, then accused a government official of the same crime — without basis.

It’s a mess.

Certainly, American newspapers have gotten into trouble as well, and journalistic standards are not in evidence in many cable “news” shows.

But it’s important to note the differences between the British and American press.

First of all, the United Kingdom does not have a “free” press in the way we know it here ... there is no First Amendment there.

Newspapers are severely limited in some areas in what they can report. In court cases, for example, courts routinely order news blackouts. Civil cases cannot be reported until they are settled, which means that even cases involving serious public safety issues are not covered.

In the notorious thalidomide cases, for example, in which scores of children were born with severe physical deformities as a result of a drug prescribed for pregnant women, residents of the UK had to read American and European coverage of the trials — national papers could not write about them.

And the government also has the right to issue press blackout orders at will.

On the other hand, perhaps because they’re freed from the responsibility, the British “popular press” has morphed into the worst tabloids possible, marked by scandalous, half-true headlines, semi-nude photos and shady news-gathering tactics.

Almost all American newspapers, on the other hand, try to adhere to a set of guidelines first set out by Adolph Ochs of the New York Times just after the turn of the 20th century. Ochs, sick of the ferociously partisan reporting evident across the country, began to stress the idea of trying to be judicious, objective, accurate and fair.

Over the years since, that has become the standard — admittedly not always met — for papers in the U.S.

The industry polices itself rigorously, with several trade publications such as Columbia Journalism Review, devoted to highlighting both good and poor practices across the country.

There is no way to sanction erring papers, of course; they’re protected by the First Amendment. But negative notice in the trade papers can dry up good job applicants and limit those who leave the paper in their choices of the another position.

The important thing is that THERE IS a standard.

That’s not true in Britain, and a senior judge ruled recently that some sort of independent media regulator needs to be appointed to “eliminate a subculture of unethical behavior that infects segments of the country’s press.” “What is needed is a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation,” the judge said. “The ball moves back into the politicians’ court: they must now decide who guards the guardians.”

He suggested the new body should be composed of members of the public including former journalists and academics — but no serving editors or politicians — and should have the power to demand prominent corrections in newspapers and to levy fines of up to 1 million pounds ($1.6 million).

One of my pet peeves is that the electronic news media — radio, TV, cable and the bloggers — ignore, or are ignorant of, Och’s standards and practices.

Their approach, driven by endless and immediate deadlines, results in invasion of privacy, harmful speculation, herd-like reporting, partisan programming and a confused viewership, which then lumps all “news media” into a group of lying, unethical stereotypes.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to bring the objective truth to my readers, and it’s galling to any modicum of respect for my chosen profession being eroded by Dacron-haired Ken and Barbie talking heads spouting nonsense.

Phooey.

As for the British, if the readers of those sensationalized rags stopped paying good money for baloney, they’d be out of business in short order.

You get what you pay for.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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