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What are the pressures that drive Britain's tabloid culture?

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Brendan McDermid/Reuters

(Read caption) The News Corporation building is seen in New York on July 13.

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Scandal, controversy, deceit, and shame: Those words are the daily mainstay of Britain’s tabloid press.

Now, however, the UK’s so-called "red top" newspapers are desperately looking over their shoulders as the phone-hacking scandal that brought down the country's top-selling newspaper, The News of the World (NotW), threatens to engulf the whole genre with guilt by association.

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While the UK's other tabloids are maintaining a holier-than-thou veneer, privately most reporters know someone on Fleet Street who has used underhanded practices to obtain information that helps put them and their paper ahead of the game.

That can involve using a rogue telecom employee to obtain phone numbers or buying a police contact or someone close to the story a dinner. The relatively minor costs were absorbed under some obscure expense entry.

Did senior staff know? Maybe, but in my experience, under the maxim "ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies," it was unofficially seen as an acceptable tool of the trade to pursue a story of public interest.

That still doesn’t explain to a public aghast at the unfolding scandal involving the hacking of the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, and even, it’s claimed, victims of 9/11, why the industrial-sized hacking operation at NotW took place.

To understand that, you arguably will have had to work for Britain’s national newspapers as I have.

Unlike European and US papers, the British sector is fiercely competitive and tribal with deeply hierarchical structures where exclusives and "new lines" on a story are a badge of honor and prestige. If a rival newspaper discovers something you haven’t, you can be sure your news or home editor will want to know why. Too many repeat offenses could mean dismissal or exile to a remote editorial department with eager replacements’ CVs waiting in editors' desk drawers.

I’ve just returned from freelancing in South Africa for four years and was amazed at how cordial local reporters were to each other and the lack of competition between them. While British reporters are "mates" and enjoy the camaraderie, they are under no illusion where their priorities lie and what they’re required to deliver.

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But while the pressures above may go some way to explain the use of dark arts to get legitimate information, it doesn’t explain the magnitude of the goings-on at the NotW or the six-figure sums paid out to hackers and contacts.

Did NotW editors Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron’s former press supremo, or Rebekah Brooks know? Why did it carry on for so long?

Those questions will, hopefully, come to light. But one thing seems clear: When reporters got away with it and the scoops brought acclaim, the hunger for bigger and better stories became addictive with seemingly little risk.