The phone-hacking scandal
The lowest low
Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition From The Economist print edition
The phone-hacking saga jeopardises more than merely the News of the World: it threatens Rupert Murdoch, the press as a whole, the police and politicians
UNTIL this week, the victims in the scandal over the illegal hacking of mobile-phone messages by the News of the World seemed mostly to be celebrities, royals and others too privileged to command much sympathy. For the tabloid, that was a useful mitigation in the court of public opinion, if not in law. No longer. The sordid antics of Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday paper—owned by News International, Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper outfit—look more promiscuous and more gravely criminal. And the circle of blame and taint is widening.
The big difference is Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who was murdered in Surrey in March 2002. On July 4th the Guardian reported allegations that Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working with News of the World journalists, hacked into Dowler’s voice-mail in the days after her disappearance, removing some messages to free up space when her account became full. The effect was to make her family think she might still be alive. The relatives of people killed in the terrorist attacks in London of July 2005, and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, might also have been targeted. Ditto the families of two girls murdered in Cambridgeshire in 2002: in a bizarre cameo in what is an increasingly baroque saga, the actor Hugh Grant made that link in April, in a covertly recorded interview with a former journalist. Tom Watson, a Labour MP, made an even more serious charge in Parliament on July 6th: that News International paid people to interfere in a murder case “on behalf of known criminals”. The firm says it doesn’t understand that accusation.
Mr Mulcaire was jailed in 2007 for hacking voice-mail messages of members of the royal household, along with Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal correspondent. At the time, and for a long time afterwards, executives at News International insisted that Mr Goodman was a lone, rogue operator. In the past few months that defence has collapsed, amid a deluge of civil cases brought by the lengthening list of hacking victims, pay-offs, and the arrest of more journalists. Yet the Dowler development has supercharged the scandal—not just because of its callous immorality but also because it potentially involves perversion of the course of justice, a new level of criminality.
If much of this is true, there were no qualms, and few limits, in the way the paper went after scoops. There might be serious legal and commercial consequences for News International. But others have been discredited, tooânot least the police.
On July 5th News International acknowledged that, last month, it gave the Metropolitan Police a set of e-mails documenting (illegal) payments to police officers from News of the World journalists in 2003 and after. That is only the latest aspersion cast on various police forces by this affair. The police in Surrey seem to have known about the Dowler hacking but overlooked it. Worse, the Met itself stands accused of failing for several years to notify potential victims of hacking and failing to pursue leads: the evidence for many recent allegations comes from notes seized from Mr Mulcaire in 2006. The Met launched a fresh probe, under new command, in January. But its contacting of targets remains mystifyingly lacklustre.
Whether intentionally or otherwise (News International says it wasn’t), the news about police payments deflected attention onto Andy Coulson, the News of the World’s editor from 2003 to 2007—and thus, indirectly onto David Cameron. Mr Coulson resigned from the paper in 2007 after Mr Goodman and Mr Mulcaire were convicted, though he insisted that he knew nothing of their nefarious methods. He resigned again, this time from his job as Mr Cameron’s communications chief, in January this year, as the hacking scandal escalated. Mr Cameron’s judgment in hiring Mr Coulson after his tabloid escapades now looks ropier than ever
As it happens, Mr Coulson’s predecessor as editor, and News International’s current chief executive, Rebekah Brooks (above, with Mr Murdoch), is a close friend of Mr Cameron, too. Mrs Brooks was in the editor’s chair in 2002; if the latest hacking allegations stand up, her position looks at least as compromised as Mr Coulson’s was in 2007. But, so far, she has rebuffed calls for her resignation, declaring herself “shocked” at the latest charges and promising to “vigorously pursue the truth”. Critics wonder whether Mrs Brooks, who has in the past been insouciantly unco-operative with parliamentary inquiries into phone-hacking, or indeed anyone else at News International, with its history of collective obfuscation, is well-placed to do that.
For the moment, at least, Mrs Brooks appears to be protected by what insiders describe as an intense, almost familial bond with Mr Murdoch, who is said to prize her business acumen and contacts: Mr Murdoch this week called the recent allegations “deplorable”, but stood by her. Events might yet test just how much their bond is worth. Public anger has already persuaded several advertisers to suspend their dealings with the News of the World; some readers may choose to boycott it.
Still, Claire Enders, a media analyst, thinks the commercial impact is likely to be modest, given the paper’s dominance in the Sunday newspaper market. Much worse, for Mr Murdoch, is the slim chance that the scandal might affect his bid to buy the rest of BSkyB, a hugely profitable satellite broadcaster in which News Corporation, his parent company, already has a 39% stake. Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, looked set finally to approve the deal after a consultation on its impact on media plurality ends on July 8th. Meanwhile Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, is obliged to consider whether the holders of broadcasting licences are “fit and proper”. It is “closely monitoring the situation”.
In the gutter
And it isn’t only the Murdoch press that is set to feel the backlash. Whereas in America journalism is a respectable, even venerated profession, in Britain it has always been regarded as grubby. But it has rarely been so reviled as now. Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, wants a public inquiry into the culture and regulation of the press; Mr Cameron agrees that there ought to be one or more inquiries, after criminal proceedings are over. One result might be a change to the current model of newspaper self-regulation; the Press Complaints Commission, the toothless body responsible for it, has handled the hacking affair woefully.
Most MPs were in the past much more diplomatic about the press, especially the Murdoch stable, which, so exaggerated legend had it, could decide the fate of governments. But the calculus for politicians has suddenly shifted. Mr Miliband’s tough stance towards News International—he joined the clamour for Mrs Brooks’s resignation—would have been unthinkable in the Blair years. Mr Cameron shied away from calling for his friend’s head too, but described the allegations as “truly dreadful”. And there may be more to come in this mad, metastasising story.