I first visited London in 1961 when I was a 20-year-old Army private first class, stationed in Germany. Using “How to See England on $5 a Day” as my guide, I spent a week sightseeing. It was a great trip — my first vacation as an adult without my parents setting the agenda — and while I didn’t manage to do it on $5 a day, I came close. That was important for a guy living on a private’s salary.

One thing that was not on the proposed expense list in the book was spending money on newspapers, but the British tabloids were not expensive, and I bought one or two every day. That was long before I decided on a career in journalism, but the splashy tabs, with outrageous headlines, lurid stories about crime, an irreverent writing style, and photos of sexy girls on page three were too much for me to pass up.

Even then, I knew enough not to take these over-the-top scandal sheets seriously, but they were fun for a young visiting soldier to read — far different from the daily Stars and Stripes that was distributed on our Army base. Time passed. I finished my three years in the Army, returned to college and found a career in newspapers.

Over the years, I’ve been back to England several times. At the end of each trip, I’ve stopped at a newsstand and bought a stack of the tabs to bring home to share with the reporters and editors at the papers where I was working. They’ve always been good for a laugh.

But as I grew older and more experienced in journalism, I came to recognize that it was wrong to consider the British tabs — or their United States cousins such as the New York Post — as simply outrageous or silly. The writers and editors at the tabs had a sharp eye for scandal and hypocrisy, and, in their own way, they served as watchdogs.

Woe be the official caught in a sex scandal or pocketing public money.

Until recently, I didn’t give much thought to the reporting tactics they used to get these stories.

Now, of course, everyone knows that the reporters at Britain’s biggest tabloid, News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch, hacked into telephones of thousands of officials and private people. One well-publicized case involved the voicemail of a murdered 13-year-old girl.

In addition to News of the World, Murdoch also owns the Sun newspapers, a British tab similar to News of the World, and other newspapers and broadcast outlets in many countries, including the United States, where he owns the New York Post, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.

The investigation of the ugly practices in England is far from over. I have little doubt that more sordid details will be disclosed.

The FBI has confirmed that it is investigating allegations that reporters working for Murdoch’s company hacked into phones of the families of 9/11 victims in this country.

Until last Friday, Murdoch had maintained that the problems disclosed in England were “minor mistakes” that his underlings had handled well, and his key executives said they knew nothing about the hacking and refused to resign.

That changed Friday. Rebekah Brooks, editor of News of the World, and Les Hinton, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, both resigned. Hinton had been in charge of Murdoch’s British operations until he became publisher of the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

Murdoch also reversed course and apologized in ads run in British newspapers over the weekend. He also apologized to the family of the murdered girl.

All that is appropriate, but it does nothing to answer the question of what Murdoch and his top executives knew about these practices.

I cannot imagine top news executives not asking how reporters were obtaining front-page stories with inside information that no other papers were printing. Routine conversations among writers, editors and publishers would have involved questions about how the stories could be defended — proved accurate — if challenged. It’s the job of editors — even top editors at worldwide news companies — to know what’s behind the stories they write or broadcast.

I don’t know if Murdoch has been questioned about what he knew. Brooks and Hinton have said they were unaware of what was going on. I don’t believe them. If it’s true, it is an astonishing admission that top editors and publishers had no control of their news operations.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. Email [email protected]


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