[Viewpoint] In defense of the British press

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[Viewpoint] In defense of the British press

The British press is infamously raucous and rowdy. They doggedly tail people and probe the private lives of the royal family, celebrities and athletes. The Financial Times and the Guardian are among the few publications that exercise restraint. Journalists frequently buy gossip and scandalous stories. Paparazzi spy on politicians and celebrities on their holidays to catch them in flagrante with secret lovers and then sell the photos to scandal-hungry tabloids.

They are unsurpassed in digging up stories, mercilessly exposing the lives of the crime suspects as well as their victims. On missing persons and kidnaping cases, distant relatives and childhood friends are traced to tell stories about the victims. Stings and traps are commonplace. A journalist working on a tip about a corrupt prosecutor even went undercover and paid him bribes for a scoop that led to his sacking. Score fixing and corruption scandals involving cricket players and FIFA executives were also exposed by reporters who posed as businessmen or lobbyists and offered bribes, secretly taping the transactions.

Targeted investigative reporting is also popular. During election season, conservative papers like The Telegraph ferociously hunt down Labour Party candidates involved in corruption. Newspapers that support the liberal parties - like the Daily Mirror - take similar offensives against Tory candidates.

But some of their behavior is appalling to both the general public and the industry as a whole. At times, they unquestionably go too far. The News of the World’s scandalous phone-hacking into the mobile phone of a murdered school girl whose killing was a major news story in 2002, which led to the shutdown of the venerable Sunday tabloid, has raised a new alert in British society on the ethical standards of its press.

But phone-hacking, scandal-thirst and illegal and unethical practices aside, British newspapers have played an admirable role in their society. First of all, the royal family and the elite don’t dare misbehave as a result of their vigilance. In 1992 elections, Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock unexpectedly lost to Tory counterpart John Major after topping the opinion polls. The reason: The Sun’s campaign against Kinnock, which exposed the luxurious home of the Labour Party leader.

Signs of drug problems, sex peccadilloes, secret affairs and corruption of public figures are closely watched. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who was arrested for sexual assault and attempted rape in New York, would have long ago been undone if he had worked in Britain. The French press, famously liberal about the infidelities of politicians, turned a totally blind eye to rumors about the notorious ladies’ man.

British society, despite the distinct presence of a royal and elite class, maintains comparative decency largely due to its snoopy press. The British people have a reason to love their papers. The major 11 British daily and evening papers print 9.5 million copies a day. Nine Sunday papers sell 8.6 million copies a week. British tabloids are being called grubby and disgraceful after the phone-hacking scandal. Undeniably, they get delighted upsetting the public. But there is a positive point to eager and relentless journalism. The world is not pretty and decent. And newspaper readers have to hear the bad news.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Sang-eon
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