For those of us on the wrong side of the pond, it’s hard to appreciate the significance of the News of the World scandal. A 2009 investigation of this News Corp tabloid for interceptions of messages to royal aides led to a private investigator and a News of the World employee being convicted and sentenced to prison. The current scandal centers on the paper hacking into the voice mailboxes of over 2000 individuals. Sources allege the victims include Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury secretary) George Osborne.
But the event that galvanized opinion, as most readers know now, was the hacking into the phone and deleting messages of a girl who was abducted and murdered in 2002, Milly Dowler. The removal of the messages allowed the voicemailbox, which had been full, to take more messages, all for the purpose of getting more juicy messages from her desperate friends and relatives, at the ghoulish cost of giving them the false hope that she had deleted them and was therefore still alive.
And Dowler may not be the only case of this sordid conduct. As the Independent reported yesterday:
The Labour MP Tom Watson claimed last week that the NOTW hacked the phones of the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the children murdered at Soham in 2002.
The fact that Rupert Murdoch decided to shutter the News of the World, a profitable paper, in a frantic act of amputation, shows how desperate the media mogul is to regain command of events. Rupert and his son James, the News Corp. deputy chief operating officer, appear determined to save Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International and editor of the paper when the Dowler hacking took place. Almost anyone else would have purged staff, including Brooks, and kept the paper.
One has to wonder whether Rupert Murdoch is not trying just to salvage Brooks’ career, but also that of his son. Initially commentary on the closure of the paper hailed it as a brilliant gambit, but cooler heads beg to differ. The Financial Times, which has this fiasco as its lead story in its US edition, intoned:
Rupert Murdoch has sacrificed the News of the World in a desperate attempt to cauterise a crisis at his $46bn global media empire, as his son admitted personal fault in handling the escalating phone hacking scandal at the British tabloid newspaper.
Even though the immediate motivation may also have been to keep it pending transaction to take full control of $12 billion satellite broadcaster BSkyB, on track, the tone of the FT piece was that that expectation, which seemed a certainty a mere day ago, was looking remote:
Before the Thursday afternoon announcement, Jeremy Hunt, culture secretary, had been expected to delay until September his verdict on whether to allow News Corp’s pursuit of BSkyB to proceed, after being deluged with 100,000 submissions on the deal.
Felix Salmon argues that the paper was fatally tarnished and the crisis management disastrously inept. But the latter is what produced the former. And SturdyBlog contends, contra Felix. that shuttering News of the World without doing a full bore housecleaning was insufficient:
His gamble was calculated to prevent cross-contamination of his other brands and, most crucially, to keep the proposed BSkyB takeover dry. I think he has failed in two significant ways:
Firstly, he has created an army of as many as 200 disgruntled whistle-blowers. The hope that not a single editor or journalist will have come across a document or email which implicates those responsible is naive. Watch out for leak after leak and revelation after revelation.
Secondly, he has removed the physical target for the public’s anger, without removing the guilty parties. The inevitable result is that the public’s anger will be directed upwards to News International – the organisation which now seeks to shelter the guilty. And they are guilty. Which ever way one looks at the matter they are guilty. At best they are guilty of gross incompetence – if one were to accept their ludicrous argument that they had no idea of the systemic immoral and illegal practices which took place under their watchful eye. At worst, they are the source of the infection.
Now to the significance. It’s difficult for Americans, with our craven and diminished press, to comprehend how much power the Murdoch empire wields in Britain. From Bob Garfield at the Guardian:
The extraordinary thing from this vantage is to see the Great Transatlantic Paradox dissolve before our eyes. To wit: in the US, because his properties are such loud and shrill voices of rightwing politics, Murdoch has long been demonised as a press baron in the worst sense. In the Hearst sense, the Pulitzer sense, the Charles Foster Kane sense. Yet, he isn’t that at all, in these parts. In the US, he inflames zealots but has no measurable influence on anyone else, least of all institutions of power. He may well have the house organ of the Republican party, but by no means is the tail wagging the elephant.
In the UK, though, where prime ministers and MPs of both parties, the press and even the police have cowered under his influence for more than 30 years, he was – until this week – demonised hardly at all. He was the Teflon Oligarch. Only now, amid universal sympathy for the family of a murdered child, have the hitherto craven and cowed coalesced to fight back. Only now is Murdoch being held accountable for decades of ethical bankruptcy, including not mere wiretapping and bribery, but three political generations of influence-peddling and who knows what?
It is Fleet Street’s answer to the Arab Spring. In this drama, poor Milly Dowler is Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation unleashed decades of pent-up rage. What remains to be seen is whether Murdoch, like strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, will quickly lose his power – or whether he will quickly tamp down protest, à la Saudi King Abdullah. Or must we now endure media Libya?
A video by Nick Davies of the Guardian, who broke the critical elements of this story, will help American readers get up to speed not just on the background of this story but on its political significance (hat tip Buzz Potamkin).
Note this video was recorded before it was reported that a News of the World correspondent, Andy Coulson, is to be arrested today, and that a second, unnamed writer is expected to be arrested in the next few days. And in a further twist, Coulson was, until January, director of communications for the current Prime Minister.
The video below, of 2007 and 2009 investigations (hat tip Buzz Potamkin), shows some of the principals, including Brooks, Coulson (who interrupts her in the first clip), Les Hinton (who is now running the Wall Street Journal), Yates, who ran the now discredited 2009 Scotland Yard investigation (apparently not paid off formally, but too many lavish News International lunches), and head of law Tom Crone (as Buzz Potamkin notes, “Ever see a lawyer perjure himself?”)
You have to click through to see it; the Guardian did not provide embed code.
Although it does not (yet?) involve a sitting national executive, I suspect this investigation is going to command as much attention in England as the Watergate hearings did here. So it’s worth learning the names of the dramatis personae and the backstory so you can appreciate the twists and turns of this evolving affair, particularly since it does have the potential to become a turning point. Sturdyblog again:
The truth is Rupert Murdoch’s empire is a product of our times; a Thatcherite dream of entrepreneurship. Capitalism is a primarily male construct and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is preoccupied with size. What the last few days prove is something that a significant and growing school of political and economic science has been arguing: size presents opportunities for efficiencies and economies of scale and scope, up to a point. Beyond that point it produces crude oil cartels that price-fix; banks that are too big to fail; corporations that hoard food securities to the detriment of the starving; telecom giants that refuse to pay tax; media conglomerates which bribe officials for information and openly state that they control the outcomes of elections. In short, entities so large as to think they can operate outside ordinary ethical and legal constraints.
It is up to us to stop them. And the biggest, the most gloriously positive lesson of the last few days is this: With a few gutsy politicians like Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, a few driven journalists, a few doggedly determined bloggers and a public that is sick to the back teeth of being treated like idiots, we can.
Update 5:30 AM: BBC reports that Prime Minister David Cameron will appoint a judge to head the inquiry into the News of the World phone hacking scandal. This greatly increases the odds of a serious investigation.
Update 6:00 AM: The FT reports that Cameron said that James Murdoch should have accepted Brooks’ resignation (which she tendered twice this last week). Cameron used to be thick with her.