Assessing the Impact of the News of the World Scandal

July 20, 2011
by Doug Gavel

The furor over allegations of the News of the World scandal in Great Britain is raising questions about the relationship between journalists, police and politicians in the U.K. Pippa Norris, Paul. F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, is keeping a close watch on the scandal, and provides some perspective on how it could play out in the coming weeks and months.

Q: Does this scandal in any way tarnish the reputation/credibility of mainstream media outlets in the UK?

Norris: The British press has been divided into tabloids and broadsheet papers for decades now – ever since the rise of the penny newspapers in the late 19th Century with the growth of literacy and schooling. Thus everyone in Britain knows that the News of the World (NoW) was a less than respectable news source – more akin to the sort of papers available at supermarket checkouts here rather than a serious paper. It was popular, of course, but it always was just the News of the World. Moreover this is nothing new; the paper was founded in 1843. As long as I can remember it was associated with sensationalism, celebrities, sex scandals, and sports – a popular mix.

But this does not mean that the NoW is regarded as similar to, say, the Times of London or the BBC. Brits are used to clear distinctions among the variety of newspaper outlets, with a more differentiated national market than in the US. The ownership is actually less important for most people than the regular style and contents. By contrast, British TV news is generally more ‘broadsheet’ and serious in orientation. The British tabs are more like much of the local TV news in America – but more down-market.

Q: In your opinion, how will this scandal play out in the UK?

Norris: This is an unfolding debate so it is too early to assess the extent of the damage to any party. However it has clearly invigorated the opposition Labour party and put the Conservative government on the defensive.

Q: Are there lessons to be learned by American journalists in regards to this scandal?

Norris: Be careful to stay within the law. But it is not yet obvious that this specific problem of phone hacking has spread beyond the NoW to other Murdoch owned outlets. Actually there may be stronger lessons for the mobile cell phone companies to improve their security; which appears to be non-existent.

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Photograph of Pippa Norris

Pippa Norris, Paul. F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics

"This is an unfolding debate so it is too early to assess the extent of the damage to any [political] party. However it has clearly invigorated the opposition Labour party and put the Conservative government on the defensive."

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