BOB GARFIELD: Ronnie Biggs, a fugitive who escaped jail in the United Kingdom nearly 30 years ago for his part in the famous Great Train Robbery has been flown back to Britain from Brazil where he had been on the run. As a 71 year old in poor health, Biggs now has to serve out the remaining 28 years of his prison sentence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It wasn't British detectives who tracked Biggs down and brought him home nor was it the government but a tabloid newspaper. This is the latest of a series of cases in which Britain's popular papers have shown their power goes beyond mere news reporting. Our correspondent in London, Gareth Mitchell, takes a look at tabloid newspaper culture in the UK.
GARETH MITCHELL: The tabloid which spends a pile of money flying Ronnie Biggs home is the Sun Newspaper, one of the UK's most popular dailies. The Sun was delighted with all the publicity in getting such a scoop, but such checkbook journalism could be in breach of regulations set down by the newspaper industry's self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission or P.C.C. The Commission's director is Guy Black.
GUY BLACK: The code that we operate deals with one specific aspect of checkbook journalism; that is payment to either convicted criminals or their associates for stories. Editors themselves have judged it unethical to pay criminals unless there is a public interest in the story that they obtain by payment.
GARETH MITCHELL: The Sun insists that bringing a convicted criminal back home to face justice is in the public interest, and it only opened its checkbook to pay Biggs' expenses. But the Press Complaints Commission has no legal powers anyway as the press industry's own regulator. It can merely require offenders to print an apology in a prominent place. The P.C.C.'s code was drawn up in 1991 as an attempt to keep a check on reckless journalism whilst also maintaining a free press. Guy Black is convinced that the code, despite some inevitable imperfections, works.
GUY BLACK: I think, you know, it's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Probably some thing, things to do with a free press never should be perfect. A free press is always going to have rough edges, a bit like democracy itself. But there's no doubt that standards have been raised. The sort of intrusions into individual privacy that we saw 15 years ago have disappeared completely. That sort of behavior is unimaginable these days.
GARETH MITCHELL: There may be more fair play within the industry these days, but tabloid journalists are no less hungry for big stories. The News of the World, one of Britain's oldest newspapers but in its modern form a punchy, campaigning weekly tabloid, famously lifted the lid on a scandal involving a member of Britain's Royal Family a few weeks ago. Sophie Wessex, married to Prince Edward, the Queen's son, ran a successful public relations company in London. The News of the World suspected that Sophie Wessex was using her royal status to drum up business for the firm. The paper dispatched a reporter masquerading as a wealthy potential client to arrange a meeting with the young royal and her business partner. News of the World executive editor Robert Warren.
ROBERT WARREN: The subterfuge we were using, which is one we do use from time to time, was one of our reporters adopts the identity of an Arab Sheik. They obviously didn't know they were talking to the News of the World, but the technique worked extremely well and she talked rather too freely about what she could do and what she thought about various people which gave us a remarkably good story.
GARETH MITCHELL: It was a very good story. The News of the World itself made headlines around the UK and internationally. Sophie Wessex was forced to step down as a director of the company, and the incident really shook the royal family up.
ROBERT WARREN: That afternoon Buckingham Palace issued a statement in which they said they realized there were things wrong the way members of the royal family conducted their businesses and there was going to be a major inquiry into it and they were going to look into the whole thing and straighten it out.
GARETH MITCHELL: That ability to shake up institutions like the monarchy is just one example of the power popular newspapers wield, especially as a general election looms and politicians are keen to get their message across. In fact many would say that one of the most influential people in the country in the runup to an election is the political editor of the Sun newspaper. Chris Horrie, journalist and author of Stick It Up Your Punter, a book which examines tabloid culture, says that for politicians it's vital to get newspapers like the Sun on your side or, more importantly, make sure they're not against you.
CHRIS HORRIE: By zeroing in and character assassination they can put off enough swing voters, the kind of people who are not that interested in politics, the kind of people who are going to make an impressionistic decision, can be very swayed by negative campaigning -- the kind of negative campaigning in the States you get in the hard-hitting TV ads you'll find on the front page of tabloids here; they are deeply feared, and it's generally thought that you cannot win an election in the UK with the Sun against you, and no political party has won an election in the UK with the Sun against it since the Sun was launched in 1969. They have that power.
GARETH MITCHELL: And the newspaper's power derives from its readership -- an audience it wouldn't get without its ethics-straining scoops. In the battle for readership and power, tabloids will from time to time breach their watchdogs' regulations and have to print the required apology. No doubt the retraction, prominent though it may be, will be eclipsed by tomorrow's big scandal all over the front page. For On the Media this is Gareth Mitchell in London. wrote Robert Huber [sp?] of New Brighton, Minnesota. Ratings are important even with no advertisers, and there's probably an agenda behind it. We will end with this observation from Frederick Armstrong Fox of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. I heard the re-broadcast of the excerpt and my opinion remains unchanged, he wrote. I found no entertainment value in the recording. Such an event is a matter of the gravest solemnity. Only a very sick pup would derive any pleasure from it. I hasten to add that a distinction exists between closure and ghoulish delight. We want to hear your opinion on any subject we tackle here on On the Media, so write us at email@example.com.