updated 7/16/2011 4:52:04 AM ET 2011-07-16T08:52:04

Britain has been transfixed by the phone hacking scandal that has shaken its media world. But will it really change the nation's press?

Much depends on the shelf life of the outcry over alleged skullduggery by journalists working for British papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, who closed a newspaper, dropped a major business deal and agreed to testify before parliament in an attempt to defuse the uproar.

Story: Dow Jones CEO quits, Murdoch apologizes in hacking scandal

An inquiry authorized by Prime Minister David Cameron and a criminal investigation aim to clear up this particular mess, but reforming the media and untangling corrosive ties between politics and the press, what some call an embedded cultural defect, require the public's attention in the long term.

Without grassroots pressure, Britain's press will have less incentive to change.

But there's a fundamental dilemma: Even as Britons recoil at trashy tabloid tactics, they have bought such papers by the millions — hungry for juicy gossip obtained by the very illegal means they decry.

Murdoch's now-shuttered News of the World was, in fact, Britain's best-selling paper.

Interactive: Who's who in the UK phone hacking scandal (on this page)

"The public's interest in these matters is fickle to say the least," said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. "Murdoch is probably thinking, 'Well, if I can last for about six months, then everything will return back to normal.'"

Fielding said Britons were more concerned about the economy, jobs, services and quality of life, especially at a time when the government is implementing painful austerity measures aimed at getting the country's finances in order.

Martin Moore, a founder of Hacked Off, a group that seeks full accountability in the phone-hacking allegations, said he was concerned that a "summer hiatus" could cool tempers and chip away at momentum for reform.

"This is a moment and an opportunity to change things," he said.

Media reforms to come?
In a speech on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Britain should look beyond the scandal and implement changes that will guarantee freedom of the press, which he described as the "lifeblood" of democracy, but also ensure accountability through robust corporate governance, and a solid framework that fosters diversity of ownership of media organizations.

"I know that there is real fear, among reformers, that this opportunity will pass us by. That there will be plenty of heat, but no light," Clegg said. "The pessimists have a point. In recent decades the political class has consistently failed to stand up to the media. Seeking to curry favor with powerful media barons or prevent their own personal lives from being splashed across the front pages."

Story: Has Murdoch's bad apple spoiled the barrel?

Indeed, success and failure in British politics has long depended heavily on the blessing of the national press, which is, to put it diplomatically, unkind to those it does not respect. The media delivers judgments with icy, devastating eloquence or, in the case of some tabloids, piles on like bulky athletes in a rugby scrum.

The intimacy and sparring between British politicians and the press go back generations. Stanley Baldwin, then leader of the opposition Conservatives in 1931, was the target of a campaign for his ouster by Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, and Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail. He blasted their newspapers in a speech.

"They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and personal dislikes of two men," declared Baldwin, who also served as prime minister. He said the press barons sought "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."

Timeline: Tabloid stir: Phone-hacking scandal intensifies (on this page)

The criticism did not induce Beaverbrook and Rothermere to temper their ways, though the latter later bet on the wrong horse with his enthusiastic support for Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.

Public concessions
Murdoch, on the other hand, has been forced to make concessions, abandoning his bid to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting, a major satellite television operation.

On Friday, Rebekah Brooks quit as chief executive of his embattled British newspapers even though Murdoch had previously refused to accept her resignation. The publisher of The Wall Street Journal, who had been chairman of the company's British newspaper arm during some of the alleged transgressions and had worked for News Corp. for more than five decades, quickly followed suit.

Video: News Corp. exec resigns amid hacking scandal

But these headline-grabbing developments mask broader questions about how to balance media freedom with accountability, whether new regulations should be introduced or enforcement of existing laws on corruption and other crimes is sufficient, and to what extent the politicians who now call for an overhaul of the way the media and politics intersect acted as promoters for suspect practices.

Cameron, of the Conservatives, is on the defensive because he had hired Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, as his communications director despite the misgivings of Clegg's Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in his coalition. Coulson, who was arrested last week, resigned in January as the hacking allegations grew.

Jeremy Black, a professor of history at the University of Exeter, said the scandal was a welcome distraction for political parties that are struggling for answers to economic challenges at home and across Europe, and that broader concerns about a "coarsening of public life" and the salacious nature of large segments of British media coverage are not being addressed.

He cited some of the reporting on Madeleine McCann, a British girl whose disappearance in Portugal in 2007 drew global attention. Her father, Gerry McCann, complained of sensational journalism in the case, and the parents won libel damages from some British newspapers over suggestions that they were responsible for their daughter's death.

"This is an over-egged crisis," Black said of the phone hacking affair. "It provides a wonderful opportunity for people, as it were, to express their accumulated grievances."

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Video: Plot thickens in UK hacking case

  1. Closed captioning of: Plot thickens in UK hacking case

    >>> the rupert murdock media family is metastasizing tonight, from britain to america with two big resignations and an apology from murdock himself. this started with newspaper reporters hacking into e-mails of ordinary citizens and government officials. we don't know how many people are who they are, but it's already cost murdock dearly. today the woman who ran his uk newspaper business quit and the man who ran "the wall street journal " for murdock quit at 67 years with him. we'll talk business impact tonight with david faber of cnbc in just a moment. the breaking news out of london tonight , nbc's stephanie gosk starts us off tonight.

    >> reporter: he was the head of the news international. the rebecca brooks also resign d ed today. she wothe most damaging accusations over the years t one that triggered this crisis, led rupert murdock to an unlikely meeting here tonight. rupert murdock met abby dowler's family. when the meeting ended, murdock was greeted outside by cat calls. he was ushered inside but wouldn't stay there long.

    >> the founder of the company, i was told the find out what happened and i apologize.

    >> reporter: earlier in the today rebecca brooks resigned. in a letter to her staff who wrote, this is now detracted attention from all our honest endeavors to fix the problems of the past. that began this week by shutting down the news of the world and then backed out a mulmultimillion dollar merger with bskyb. we are sorry for the serious wrong doing that occurred, it will say, we regret not acting faster to sort things out. but tonight it is clear murdock 's problems aren't just here in the uk, hinckley's resignation followed an announcement from the fbi that it has opened it's own investigation into news international. a there was an unsubstantiated report that news of the world tried to hack the e-mails of 9/11 victims. they can expect a grilling. brian?

    >> stephanie gosk starting us off

Timeline: Tabloid stir: Phone-hacking scandal intensifies


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