Could libel laws be the cause of the phone-hacking scandal?

There’s a question that’s been obsessing me for the last few days about Britain’s sensational phone-hacking scandal, and it’s the question “Why?” Why did editors and their journalists break the law systematically in their desperate competition for scoops? And why — we hope — did it not happen here?

For me the answer to the second question is easier. I’m in the camp that believes that the tabloid picture is so different here, compared to the national tabloids in the U.K., that their influence here is far less than their British counterparts. Although let’s not forget that it was the National Enquirer that in 2007 broke the story about John Edwards’s affair that eventually led to his withdrawal as a presidential contender. Secondly, the relationship between newspaper proprietors and politicians cuts across political boundaries in Britain, enhancing the magnates’ clout, whereas here — apparently — they do not cross the aisle.

Checkbook journalism is one thing, but bribing the police, as is alleged in the British scandal, is quite another.

I’m wondering whether the root cause of the scandal in Britain might have been England’s libel laws, which at that time were among the toughest in the world. Complainants were showing up from all over the place to take advantage of their protection. So it could be that the draconian laws actually drove some newspapers into breaking the law in order to dig up stories that they knew were true. Phone records cannot lie, nor can bank accounts. Add to that the frenzied and aggressive competition that pits the British tabloid newspapers against each other, a toothless self-regulatory watchdog, and you’ve got a perversion of the rules and ethics of journalism.

All this is set to change as a result of today’s statement by Prime Minister David Cameron, after extraordinary scenes in the mother of parliaments. He announced a full investigation into wrongdoing in the press and the police, including the failure of a first police investigation. There will also be a review of press regulation. Plenty of questions remain, of course, about Cameron’s own relationship with the two former editors of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, but his statement dealt with the most urgent matters.

As for Rupert Murdoch, the beleaguered head of News Corp. who today announced that he was withdrawing his bid for complete ownership of the British pay-TV channel BskyB, if the hand of justice doesn’t reach him, he will be judged by his company shareholders.