This blog was featured on 09/01/2016
Yellow Journalism: Joys and Perils in Britain

Amidst Murdoch’s excesses, Sarah Glazer finds restrictions on journalists more worrying

One of the joys of moving to London 5 years ago was my morning perusal of the local newsstand. As I read the headlines, I was like a kid in a candy store, deciding which of the sensational headlines was the most enticing. Unlike the U.S., where most newspapers seemed to have a slightly different headline about exactly the same news—in London every newspaper had picked an entirely different juicy bit to feature.

For the tabloid Evening Standard or Mirror, it might be model Kate Moss’ most recent scandalous behavior at a London nightclub. For the conservative Sun or Daily Telegraph, it was about how a family on welfare benefits was living in a really nice townhouse paid for by their local council. And you always knew exactly which political persuasion the paper espoused by how negatively they reported on Gordon Brown or how positively on David Cameron.

But I have to admit I’ve been pretty shocked by the extent to which Rupert Murdoch’s editors and journalists were willing to go as the revelations about his News of the World have continued to roll out this week.

I’m inured to stories of people going through someone’s private garbage. But paying con-men to pose as a certain Labour Party politician to get access to his bank account and legal files? Paying bribes to law enforcement? It sounds positively Third World.

Most shocking to Brits have been the stories about how the paper hacked into the cell phone of a missing 13-year-old, Milly Dowler, later found murdered, and even wiped out some of her voicemails, destroying important evidence for the police investigation.

Although the liberal Guardian has been in the forefront of this investigation, some newspapers are worried by the vows of politicians at both ends of the spectrum to crack down on the newspapers.

A free press “must not be robbed of its vitality, irreverence and nosiness” opined the Financial Times—naming those very qualities I’ve secretly relished here.

In fact, there’s a strange paradox in England about the press run wild. The press is far more stymied here than in the U.S. when it comes to freedom of expression about important issues—bogus health claims, Rwandan genocide—to name just two topics that have been the subject of libel suits. Britain’s media already faces increasing curbs from expanding privacy laws and “libel tourism” by wealthy and famous people from around the world.

Last year, a friend forwarded me an email from the science writer Simon Singh, author of the widely hailed Fermat’s Last Theorem. He was being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for a critical article he had written about chiropractors’ claims that they can cure 95 percent of ailments including childhood conditions like asthma, ear infections and sleeping problems.

“You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything,” he had written in The Guardian in 2008.

English libel laws are strange things. According to Sense about Science, a group campaigning for reform of England’s libel laws, “a defendant must show ... what they have written is true. However, a judge decides what the words meant, and therefore what a defendant must prove to be true – sometimes not what a defendant expects.”

And the judge’s interpretation can be bizarre, as it was in Singh’s case, which lasted two years and cost him over $100,000.

The presiding judge decided that Singh had made statements of fact accusing the British Chiropractic Association of being deliberately dishonest—an interpretation Singh rejected.

“Although I feel that chiropractors are deluded and reckless, I was not suggesting that they are dishonest,” Singh explained later.

I feel a kinship with Singh since I once used the very same word-- “wacky”-- to describe some American nurses’ practice of "therapeutic touch," a technique they claim heals people’s diseases without actually touching them, based on some very confused ideas about physics and a dose of 19th Century theosophy. It would never have occurred to me as a health journalist in the United States that such a statement could land me in court.

A bill now before Parliament could finally reform Britain’s libel laws, journalists and scientists supporting Singh are hoping.

In the meantime, Tom Stoppard’s character in the play Night and Day says it best when it comes to the dangers posed by British politicians vying with one another to express indignation over the current News of the World scandal. (With a tip of my hat to the FT for this quote). “I’m with you on the free press; it’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

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