In mainstream U.S. journalism, paying sources for news has long been out of bounds, and it’s harder to imagine something like this happening here. Sure, TV networks cross that line by paying people in the news “licensing fees” in exchange for exclusive interviews and images, and tabloid outlets like the National Enquirer, Gawker, and TMZ have little compunction about paying for news. But the dominant newsgathering culture here has considered it taboo. The tabloids are the dominant newsgathering culture in the UK, at least in print, where The Sun has more than ten times the circulation of The Guardian.
This is not to say that there’s no possible journalistic upside to paying officials for information. The money surely incentivizes the disclosure of important information that sources wouldn’t otherwise leak. See, for instance, the 2009 expenses scandal in Parliament.
The Telegraph broke that story after the government source shopped the files around Fleet Street, ultimately getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the paper. We’ll never know if that source would have found it worthwhile to risk a career leaking that damning information, which eventually led to several criminal charges and dozens of resignations and retirements, but it’s reasonable to suspect that they would not have.
But in the Sun case the payments, which the Met says mainly bought “salacious gossip,” are obviously unjustifiable, and they show why a journalistic standard that frowns on paying for news is ultimately the way to go.
Maybe if Murdoch’s papers spent less time and money paying for gossip and more investigating the local hospital ah, well.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Londontown.
Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.