ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. The voice mail hacking scandal that has shaken the British newspaper industry has also led to calls for government regulation of the press. But NPR's David Folkenflik found on a recent trip to London that the boisterous British press already operates under far more constraints than the American press.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Until this serious crisis, British papers were largely celebrated for being salacious. They were cheeky, bare-knuckled, sometimes even bare-breasted. And they're known for serving up gossipy scoops about political figures, celebrities and sports stars, along with more serious coverage.
In fact, at a major judicial inquiry this winter, the press's salaciousness has been among the very virtues stoutly defended by journalists, such as Paul Dacre, long time editor of the tabloid Daily Mail.
PAUL DACRE: The courts must not ignore the fact that if newspapers do not publish information which the public are interested in then there will be fewer newspapers published, which will not be in the public interest.
FOLKENFLIK: There, Dacre was citing a ruling by a senior British judge in a case involving a professional soccer player's romantic involvement with a lap dancer. But Dacre argues that newspapers play a central role in British society.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has a strangle hold on commercial satellite TV in the UK through its controlling stakes in Sky News and BSkyB, Dacre says. And he added that the BBC can be intimidated by powerful politicians because much of its funding is determined by the government.
DACRE: Indeed, I would argue that Britain's commercially liable free press, because it's in hock to nobody, is the only real free media in this country. Over-regulate that press and you put democracy itself in peril.
FOLKENFLIK: But Alan Rusbridger says some systemic changes are probably needed. He's editor-in-chief of The Guardian. The paper helped to reveal that voice mail hacking and police bribery were rife at the Sunday tabloid News of the World in its quest for scoops.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: We've arrived at a situation where the lawmakers say we have to have some boundaries and that's why we have this perpetual discussion and it's been held for 40 years about whether the press can police themselves.
FOLKENFLIK: Press meaning specifically newspapers, and indeed, News of the World was shut down by its parent company, again Murdoch's News Corp, after the extent of the wrongdoing became clear. Yet, oddly enough, British newspapers already labor under much greater formal constraints than their American counterparts.
Laws are on the whole much friendlier to plaintiffs who want to sue papers for liable. Judges sometimes issue prior restraint orders barring papers from publishing damaging stories.
In the U.S., that's limited to restriction of articles about imminent national security threats. And there's also a British Press Complaints Commission designed to determine whether coverage has been fair. But at key moments the commission has proven toothless. Participation is voluntary and it's dominated by newspaper executives.
Mark Lewis is one of the leading attorneys for hacking plaintiffs suing News Corp's British arm. He told me papers are seeking to deflect accountability by hiding behind the Complaints Commission.
MARK LEWIS: We don't have any regulation. It's not the state regulation. It's not free regulation. It's not self-regulation. It's no regulation. There is no regulation to the press.
FOLKENFLIK: And the calls for new laws and regulations are heartfelt and angry. Take Gerry McCann. After his young daughter's disappearance in Portugal, McCann and his wife were barraged with blanket paparazzi coverage and subject to accusing stories. The couple won a series of libel awards and now, as he testified last year, he wants journalists to be subject to stiffer restrictions.
GERRY MCCANN: Information is being written and lives are being harmed by these stories and something has to change. A commercial imperative is not acceptable.
FOLKENFLIK: The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger says this crisis offers an opportunity for the British press.
RUSBRIDGER: Americans are much more ready to admit their own mistakes and we have come very late to that party. So it's almost as if we have a culture in this country where we're less willing to take personal responsibility and we wait for it to be imposed externally.
FOLKENFLIK: Lord Justice Leveson, the senior judge leading the inquiry, is expected to make his policy recommendations to Prime Minister David Cameron later in the spring.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.