Should Britain Regulate Its Press?

The relationship between the press and politicians in Britain has long been cozy, but that nexus is now under strain. Oli Scarff / PA-AP

The downfall of Rupert Murdoch has prompted some extraordinary rhetoric on the British left. One well-known Guardian columnist tweeted it was “our Berlin Wall moment,” though he may have been outdone by the New York Times correspondent who wrote of “a British Spring.” Gordon Brown, who has barely attended the House of Commons since losing the general election, returned in a terrible rage to compare Murdoch journalists to sewer rats.

While Labour supporters are making the most noise, the revulsion is near universal. The revelation that News of the World had been hacking celebrities’ telephones caused only a minor stir. Two men—a reporter and a private investigator—went to jail, but the general view was that people in public life “knew the rules.”

Everything changed when it turned out that the newspaper had used the same tactics against murder victims and fallen soldiers. For the first time I can remember, people who said “I’m shocked” or “I’m outraged” meant it literally. Readers and, perhaps more important, advertisers announced that they were turning their backs on News of the World. In an attempt to keep alive his bid for control of Britain’s main satellite-television network, Murdoch announced that he was closing the tabloid—the country’s bestselling newspaper. It was too late: as M.P.s prepared a motion condemning the takeover, News Corp. bowed to the inevitable and dropped its bid.

The gloating on the left is understandable. British socialists had never forgiven Rupert Murdoch for defeating a strike at the Wapping print works in 1986—a victory that, in the event, made possible a renaissance in newspapers that lasted until the advent of the Internet. They hated the idea of a British Fox News. And their dislike was tinged with self-loathing: one of Tony Blair’s first actions as Labour leader was to fly to the other side of the world to pay court to the Australian press baron, the beginning of a campaign that eventually resulted in the London Times, as well as the Murdoch-owned tabloids, supporting Labour.

Now politicians from across the spectrum are lining up to excoriate newspapers that, until recently, few dared criticize. The prime minister is flirting with the idea of press regulation. When an M.P. asked him what he would do about tabloid behavior that, while within the letter of the law, was immoral, he replied, “We’ll address that, too.”

No one emerges with much credit from the past two weeks. Other tabloids were slow to report the travails of their rival, leading to widespread speculation that they, too, have habitually made use of illicitly obtained information. Some policemen have plainly sold stories to journalists, and even senior officers have admitted to being far too cozy with editors. Worst of all, though, was the readiness of senior politicians to do the will of newspaper proprietors.

American journalists are often surprised by the relationship between British politicians and newspapers. Editors and M.P.s regularly socialize. Some reporters become so uncritically factional that they are treated almost as official party spokesmen. Writers flit back and forth between being press officers and columnists.

That nexus is now under strain. Politicians, ashamed of their past subservience, and aware that declining circulation has weakened the print media, see an opportunity for revenge. And revenge, in the current climate, is popular. A surprising number of people who think of themselves as liberals have turned out to be remarkably illiberal when it comes to newspapers of which they disapprove. As the actor Hugh Grant, himself a victim of phone hacking, put it last week: “I’m not for regulating the proper press, the broadsheet press. But it is insane that the tabloid press is left unregulated.”

In fact, recent events have made the case against statutory control. News of the World was felled not by the Press Complaints Commission nor by any law, not by a court case or a libel suit, but by Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Advertising revenue was disappearing, a mass boycott loomed, and News Corp. shares were sliding. In other words, where government failed, the market succeeded. The system works.

Hannan is a Conservative M.E.P. and blogs every day at

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