Reuters Institute hosts a debate taking stock of the crisis in British (and U.S.) journalism

Chrystia Freeland, Nicolas Lemann, Tim Gardam, and John Lloyd (Lauren Kirchner)
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In the short time during which The Leveson Inquiry in Britain has been investigating the practice of phone-hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s News International employees, the revelations have been as shocking as the resignations have been numerous. Unscrupulous editors, crooked reporters, bribe-accepting policemen, corrupt government officials, the head of Scotland Yard, the News of the World itself: all participants in and casualties of this historic scandal.

What does this mean for the international journalistic community? What are the implications for news organizations in the United States, and for their standards of privacy and ethics? Should journalists reexamine what “public interest” really means? These were some of the questions up for debate on Friday afternoon at the Thomson Reuters building, during an event hosted by The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that was rather wordily titled “The crisis in Britain’s journalism goes beyond Britain (or, why that which interests the public is increasingly not in the public interest).”

The first to speak was John Lloyd, the Reuters Institute’s director of journalism and the author of a new Institute report, “Scandal! News International and the Rights of Journalism.” Lloyd summarized the story so far and its implications within the British media, looking specifically at the print tabloids that remain—like The Sun, the Daily Mirror, and the Daily Star. These papers have an enormous daily readership in Britain and have traditionally dominated public and political conversations there. But as audiences disperse online, and web journalism becomes increasingly niche-ified, the influence of these kinds of general-interest tabloids is on the wane.

“I think the British tabloids’ game is probably up,” said Lloyd. “There’s very little value left in them. There’s lots of fun in them, but fun now can be supplied by others.” (Gawker came up a few times in the conversation.)

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Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, brought the conversation to the American media landscape. In the United States, there are very few national tabloids with any real influence on the public conversation, he said. New York City happens to have two local tabloids, but we are an exception. He conceded that the National Enquirer won a small bit of respect from the establishment media after its investigations into John Edwards’s extramarital affair. But the difference between tabloids’ overall political influence in Britain and in the United States is clear.

“What you get in the phone-hacking scandal, from this side of the Atlantic, is a picture of a situation in Britain where these thoroughly unrespectable (by our standards) papers have a high-bandwidth relationship with politicians at the highest level,” said Lemann. “That’s what you don’t have here. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I just don’t think it’s going to come out that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Barack Obama were always on the phone with, or having little dinners with, people from the National Enquirer and the Star.”

Our version of sensationalized, questionable journalism, Lemann noted, is perhaps our cable television. Fox News and MSNBC, both highly polemical, have their own ways of forcing the political conversation towards one issue or another. They don’t do it behind closed doors, through bribery and phone-hacking (that we know of), but they do it through exaggeration and on-air hysterics. Molehills become mountains, and politicians often have no choice but to respond.

The problem is not one of “reportorial excess,” as it is in Britain, but rather of “reportorial insufficiency,” Lemann added. This relates to the crisis playing out across the entire field of journalism, of course.

“We don’t have phone-hacking that I know of, but what we do have is a kind of depopulation of the reporting ranks in the United States, and that’s a really serious problem, to which I have not yet heard a good enough solution.”

Thomson Reuters digital editor Chrystia Freeland (pictured at left) took issue with Lemann’s characterization of the state of journalism in America, though. “I wouldn’t be as bleak as Nick,” she said. “It is the worst of times, but it’s also the best of times.”

Freeland argued that the wealth of information now available online and the ubiquity of social media have vastly improved our ability to stay informed. While global economic upheaval and ever-changing business models make this a very difficult time to make a living as a journalist, from the point of view of the consumer, it’s a good time for the news. She extended her optimism back to the British media, agreeing with Lloyd that just as politically-connected, institutionally-entrenched tabloids are fading, their political power will tend to be broken up along with their audiences.

This trend can bring about its own problems, though. When asked about the future of privacy issues in U.S. journalism, Lemann said that he was waiting for the perhaps inevitable revelations about phone-hacking here—not by journalists, but via the Internet.

“Google’s motto is ‘Don’t be evil,’ and I take them at their word,” said Lemann. “Some online company that doesn’t do journalism, but collects enormous amounts of data on people, one day, even as incredible as it may seem, is going to have a C.E.O. who actually is evil. And then that’s where it’s going to become a hot issue in the United States. In our lifetimes, that will happen, I would predict.”

News institutions as such may be on the decline, but aggregators and search engines and social media corporations are on the rise, the panelists agreed. Those companies’ main business model is to find out every piece of information about us they can, repackage that information, and sell it. And is that really so different from the way Murdoch’s tabloids gained their influence—by collecting private information and leveraging it for their own benefit? Information is power, period.

Freeland nodded in agreement. “Yes, the new media barons are the digital barons,” she said. She added that, during the Arab Spring protests, the U.S. State Department had asked Twitter not to introduce a new feature, as the update might disrupt the service among the protesters. “If that’s not political power, I don’t know what is,” said Freeland.

Lemann added a caveat to that line of argument, though, noting that it is rare for businesses to be motivated by ideology, rather than by mere self-interest. Google has a huge lobbying influence in Washington, but it’s not lobbying for a political outcome, it’s lobbying for legislation that will best serve its own financial concerns.

Another point that all speakers agreed on was that the ethics of “the invasion of privacy” in journalism are murky. It’s easy to declare that hacking the voicemail of a young murder victim, and thereby giving her parents false hope, is wrong. But it’s an easy declaration because whatever small, salacious story the reporters got through illegal means, in that case, was not ultimately serving the public good. What about when a story, similarly obtained, uncovers political corruption? What if phone-hacking had delivered another Watergate?, Freeland asked the rest of the panel. Would the end justify the means?

Lloyd said yes. He raised the example of the infamous M.P. expenses scandal in Britain, which revealed that members of Parliament had used governmental expense accounts for lavish personal purchases. An unnamed source had stolen a disk containing the expense reports from the government, and then the Telegraph paid the source a huge sum to get it. Yet, “there has been no thought of taking the Telegraph, or any of the intermediaries who brought the disk to them, to court,” said Lloyd. “So it does very much depend upon what the end is, in order for the means to be held up to anything from ridicule to a court action.”

Tim Gardam, who is the chair of the Reuters Institute Steering Committee and moderated Friday’s discussion, had opened up the conversation by emphasizing the significance of the Leveson hearings, and he wrapped up the conversation by recommending that everyone stay closely tuned to it. He said that the next month or so should be particularly interesting, as both Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, are scheduled to testify again.

“The Leveson Inquiry is the most fascinating spectacle, all of it, as you know, being broadcast as it happens,” said Gardam. “In terms of a moment in journalism history—where the entire great and good of British journalism are paraded before a judge and attorneys to be cross-examined—it is something well worth watching, because it is a historical moment which will reverberate for a long time to come.”