Other than dedicated media watchers, readers in the United States will be at best only dimly aware of the “phone-hacking” scandal surrounding the News of the World, the UK Sunday tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and said to be the most widely read newspaper in the English-speaking world.
Well, you’ll be hearing a bit more about it over the next few days, as it’s been announced that the paper – known colloquially as the “News of the Screws” on account of its predilection for reporting on sex scandals involving politicians and celebrities – will close after this Sunday’s edition is published.
The hacking scandal has dogged the paper for years. In 2007 a reporter and private investigator were jailed for hacking into the voicemail messages of aides to Prince William (the one who just got married). But that was just the beginning. A steady drip of hacking revelations continued to plague the NoW; News International paid out damages to several victims including actress Sienna Miller and British politicians and sports personalities, and Andy Coulson who was editor of the NoW at the time the original offenses were committed, was forced to resign his position as communications director for Prime Minister David Cameron. (For those interested there’s a Q&A on the affair here, and massive coverage on all UK news sites.)
Things came to a head in the last couple of days with revelations that the jailed private investigator had also hacked the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl – while police were still searching for her, and before it was known she was dead. The final straw came this morning when it emerged that families of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan had likely also been victims of hacking.
Police investigations are continuing (although many consider the police to be compromised by the close relationships between some officers in the London force and NoW reporters, and the paper is accused of making illegal payments to several) and public inquiries are set to be held. Further revelations are likely, and we won’t know the full extent of the shenanigans at the NoW for some time, but with advertisers abandoning the paper in droves, James Murdoch, son of Rupert and chairman of News International, announced this afternoon that the paper would close.
No surprisingly there’s a widespread sense of Schadenfreude at seeing a publication that dealt in scandal and sleaze brought down by a scandal of its own, and I’m certainly no fan of the paper. However, there’s a disturbing political dimension to this affair. Few are talking about it – understandably, as no-one wants to be seen as trying to defend the paper’s appalling behavior – but the crusade against the NoW has been driven at least as much by the desire to damage the Murdoch empire and Cameron’s Conservative government as by any concern for those whose phones were hacked, or for the reputation of British journalism.
After the 2007 court case and jailings, the phone hacking affair appeared to be closed. It was the left-wing Guardian newspaper which reopened the saga with a series of reports in July 2009 – and it’s no coincidence that this was at the time when it was becoming clear that Murdoch was switching his allegiance, and that of his papers, from the Labour Party to the Conservatives. The story was enthusiastically taken up by the BBC, which coordinated its coverage with the Guardian; both organizations saw the phone-hacking story as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attack both a powerful rival media group, and (through the Cameron-Coulson connection) the Conservatives. Just for good measure, and lest anyone doubt the political and business motivations involved, the New York Times piled on last year.
Other UK news organisations were slow in taking up the story, either because they were Murdoch owned, or sympathetic to Cameron, or because they knew their own journalists had also engaged in phone hacking and other illegality. But with the BBC driving coverage on its prime-time broadcasts, 24-house news channel, and website, the story became impossible to ignore, and the chance to damage Murdoch became irresistible to other rivals. Coulson’s resignation was the first victory for the anti-Murdoch alliance, and they’ve been keeping up the pressure in a bid to derail News Corp’s bid to take a controlling stake in British satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
None of this is to excuse the behaviour of the hackers at the NoW and their enablers. But it’s an open secret that phone hacking is rife among British tabloids, and the Guardian and BBC axis have chosen to play down this fact in their single-minded pursuit of Murdoch and the NoW. Those other tabloids have been happy to play along, although with at least one and perhaps more public inquires on the way, they may yet regret helping to open this particular can of worms.
Few will mourn the passing of the NoW beyond its loyal band of sleaze-addicted readers. But at the same time, the manner in which a left-wing newspaper has been able to collude with the state-funded broadcaster to lead an attack an organization whose power and political alignment they resented should be deeply troubling.