Timothy Garton Ash: And Now, Bang Go Britain's Tabloids

Roundup: Historians' Take

Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to LA Times Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and professor of European studies at Oxford University.

Like a truth commission, the official inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal exposes story after story of intrusion and intimidation. But this is Britain, so the unchecked power that created this culture of fear was not the military or secret police; it was tabloid newspapers.

Most tabloid editors and proprietors are still in denial. They invoke free speech and the public interest while condemning a few bad apples (a small orchard by now). But one former editor has faced up to the difficult past.

David Yelland, who edited the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun for nearly five years, this week acknowledged that tabloid editors in the era of Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the early months of David Cameron, simply had too much unaccountable power. Faced with a story about a soccer player's sex life, Yelland recalled honestly, he would not have asked himself if publishing it was in the public interest; he would have asked if the story "stood up." He felt as if he had a "big red button" on his desk. If he pressed it, the next morning there would be an explosion somewhere. (Bang goes a career, a family. Bang goes a life.)

Yelland was responding to a searching lecture by philosopher Onora O'Neill at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. She asked why journalists should be immune to the kinds of accountability that are now the norm in other areas of public life. "The media have been keen enough on transparency for others with power and influence," she concluded, "and what is sauce for political geese is surely also sauce for media ganders."...

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