Though you wouldn’t believe it from the hacking scandal and the panoply of salacious headlines gracing Britain’s papers daily, the U.K. actually has tougher libel laws than the U.S. There is no guaranteed freedom of speech in Britain, and the truth is judged on face value with no regard to intent, i.e., even if it’s an accidental mistake, a paper is still liable. And it is incumbent on the papers to prove the truth, versus the public official to prove falsity.
You would think, given such restrictions, that the British media would be hyper cautious. But, British reporters are, for the most part, much more aggressive than their U.S. counterparts. The hacking came about at least in part because they needed cover from the libel laws: it’s hard to sue when the story is factual. That said, the stories they choose to go after are also very different from U.S. politicos.
Forget about uncovering the U.K. Watergate or the Pentagon Papers, or, perhaps, a secret austerity plan to kill Britain’s version of Social Security. When U.K. journos hack voicemails they go for the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Take the case of George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer. When he was 22 he may or may not have done cocaine and may or may not had a fling with a girl who later became a prostitute. He has long denied the woman’s accusations, which came out years ago but have been dredged up again in the hacking scandal. Did the News of the World hack the woman’s phone to get the story, as she says they did? And did Andy Coulson, then editor of NotW, help Obsorne spin the story, as the woman now alleges? These are the breathless stories being served up this week by British papers.
Perhaps it’s because Barack Obama admitted up front to sampling cocaine as a college student in New York, but such a story of alleged youthful indiscretion, which came out in 2005 when Obsorne was Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign manager, seems, well, silly. I’m not sure Americans would care if it emerged that Obama’s 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe had toked up in college and streaked naked through campus. In fact, such behavior might further endear Plouffe to the liberal base.
Britons treat such stories with amusement and mockery, which tends to defang their bite. The U.K. has a rich history of sex and humor — the carry on movies, the saucy postcards. And while the scandals have certainly brought down careers, there are also survivors: London Mayor Boris Johnson comes to mind. There is a certain orgiastic glee with which the British papers approach such stories — as if embarrassment is a dish to be feasted upon. Yet despite approaching it with the mentality of a teenage boy, the British are much more upfront and unblinking about these peccadilloes.
More than 15 years later, the U.S. political press corps is still suffering from a Monica Lewinsky hangover. Former Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s X-rated instant messages with congressional pages were shopped to media outlets for months before ABC finally bit. Rumors have circulated for years about Bill Clinton’s post-presidential extracurricular activities, but the only place I’ve seen them in print was in the book Game Change. And if it hadn’t been for the National Enquirer, John Edwards might have gotten away with a pretty unbelievable affair — such was the distaste for that story amongst the twitterati.
In fact, the American press is perhaps dangerously prudish in its refusal to look at sex, which leaves a gaping hole if some potentially serious transgression occurs. What if a President or Speaker was having an affair with a lobbyist? What if they were being blackmailed to keep the affair secret? That’s not to say that U.S. publications don’t cover sex scandals. Recent ones have included David Vitter’s alleged penchant for diapers, Larry “wide stance” Craig, John Ensign’s gross abuse of his staff,Eric “tickle me” Massa and Chris Lee of Craig’s List fame. In the U.S., the smallest hint of impropriety can bring down a career, even if the only transgressions were in the eyes of God, not the law, as with Anthony Weiner. The newly-married Weiner sent suggestive photos of himself to women he met on Facebook, but maintained he never physically engaged with them. Democrats who demanded at the time that Weiner resign, when no laws had been broken, are probably now regretting their words given they just lost his seat in a special election on Tuesday. If the British press is akin to a pubescent boy, than their American counterparts are puritanical old ladies. Perhaps one day both might find a more liberated approach to covering sex.