Andrew Neil, a former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times and now the publisher of The Spectator, has called it "one of the most significant media stories of modern times".
Simon Jenkins, a former editor of The Times, also owned by Murdoch, accused the News of the World journalists of using "private detectives, hackers, oddballs and dodgy policemen to dig the dirt on behalf of their readers and shareholders".
When former Murdoch lieutenants of such gravitas turn on the empire and give it such a public savaging, there is clearly something rotten at the heart of Rupert’s enterprise.
The scandal broke on June 9 and 10, when The Guardian began publishing the results of a one-year investigation into phone-hacking by Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, which sells 3 million copies, making it Britain’s most popular paper.
The central allegation was that the paper was using out-sourced operatives to tap the phones of celebrities to gather "exclusive" stories to fuel its circulation drive. It said hundreds, if not thousands, of celebrities, sports figures and politicians had their phones hacked and that its sister "red top", The Sun, Britain’s biggest selling daily, may have been involved as well.
Named targets of the phone-tapping caper included actors Patsy Kensit and Gwyneth Paltrow, model Elle Macpherson, comedian Lenny Henry, London mayor Boris Johnson, chef and author Nigella Lawson, TV presenter Anne Robinson, singer George Michael, high-profile celebrity agent Max Clifford, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, former England captain Alan Shearer and former deputy prime minister John Prescott.
The Guardian spared no space to nail Murdoch’s tabloid flagship: 25 articles on 9 June followed by seven full pages on 10 June. The paper’s killer blow was the revelation that News Group had secretly paid almost $2 million in an out-of-court settlement to Gordon Taylor, CEO of the Professional Footballers’ Association, whose phone had been hacked.
Clearly stunned and infuriated by The Guardian‘s blitz, News Corp initially decided that looking the other way was the best tactic, so it ignored the revelations. So did all the other UK mainstream papers, with the honorable exception of The Independent. The BBC, which has many scores to settle with Murdoch because of his decades-long anti-BBC bias, gave the allegations a generous airing on radio and television.
Two days into the public furore, News Corp chose Sun editor and soon-to-be chief executive Rebekah Wade to issue an announcement defending the integrity and professionalism of the group’s editors and its journalism and insisting that the company would respond in full at any future inquiries by Parliament or the police.
Wade, who will be in charge of all aspects of The Sun, the News of the World, The Times, the Sunday Times and the free London Paper from September, accused The Guardian of "selective and misleading" reporting while a former Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, backed her saying: "I can officially tell you it is a load of socialist claptrap."
Famous for her quick temper, Wade’s influence in Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour establishment is enormous. Prime Minister Brown found time to attend Wade’s summer wedding to former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks, but he was unavailable for the eight funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan at the same time.
While News Group’s public stance was "we’ve done nothing wrong, so sod off," its behind-the-scenes spin was more insidious. The company’s line, which was filtered through a network of gravy trainers, was that The Guardian‘s story was "old", contained "nothing new" and had been dealt with years ago.
It is true that the revelations of phone-hacking first surfaced in 2006 and that in 2007 the News of the World‘s royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and private security agent Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for illegally obtaining information after being caught red-handed trying to access the phones of members of the royal household.
In the wake of the scandal, the paper’s editor, Andy Coulson, resigned and a parliamentary committee was told Goodman was "a rotten apple".
Murdoch bought into the furore in February 2007 saying: "If you’re talking about illegal tapping by a private investigator, that is not part of our culture anywhere in the world, least of all in Britain."
And News International’s CEO in Britain, Les Hinton, now CEO of the Wall Street Journal mega-project in New York, said: "I believe that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on."
But the media’s rumour and gossip mill continued to regard Goodman as a "patsy" rather than a lone wrongdoer and it was widely believed that he was part of a broader and more organised criminal transgression.
As Simon Jenkins, now a columnist with The Guardian, wrote: "It is implausible for the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson to plead that he did not know what was going on. No editor would be left in the dark about the costly source of such scoops. Even a remark that ‘I would rather not know’ admits responsibility."
Andrew Neil was just as devastating in comments he made on Coulson’s role: "It suggests that rather than being a one-off journalist or rogue private investigator, it was systemic throughout the News of the World, and to a lesser extent The Sun.
"Particularly in the News of the World, this was a newsroom out of control. Everyone who knows the News of the World, everybody knows this was going on. But it did no good to talk about it. One News of the World journalist said to me it was dangerous to talk about it."
Since leaving the News of the World Coulson has landed the job as communications director of the Tory leader David Cameron, the man most likely to be Britain’s prime minister by this time next year. He will inherit the all-powerful position held by Alastair Campbell under Tony Blair and Sir Bernard Ingham under Margaret Thatcher, and he will be able to dispense media favours on a grand scale. Any guesses as to which newspaper group will be receiving the lion’s share of No 10 "exclusives"?
(Incidentally, News Corp is shedding its infatuation with New Labour and positioning itself to support Cameron, a featherweight Old Etonian who is bereft of ideas, policies or principles. Last week The Sun declared that Gordon Brown was unelectable following recent trouncings in council and European elections and the Norwich North by-election. The Times has been warming to the same theme).
Unfortunately for Murdoch and his London lieutenants, the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee has reopened its inquiry into media phone-hacking and The Guardian‘s editor Alan Rusbridger and his investigator-in-chief Nick Davies have been in the witness box.
On 14 July, Davies told MPs he had the names of 31 journalists from News Corp who had used the services of a private investigator to obtain information illegally. At a stroke, the company’s "rotten apple" theory went out the window.
When Andy Coulson and News executives testified, they admitted that large payments were made to Clive Goodman and private security agent Glenn Mulcaire after they were jailed for six months for phone hacking. Asked why, the Murdoch witnesses claimed that it was part of "arrangements" to comply with employment laws and certainly not "hush money".
Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand why an employee who had broken the criminal law and a person not employed by the company should be entitled to payments after they had violated company policy so heinously.
Coulson was hilariously candid. "Things went badly wrong under my editorship of the News of the World. I deeply regret it. I suspect I always will. I take the blame because, ultimately, it was my responsibility." They were the kind of words scripted for a politician needing a TV grab and no doubt Coulson will be employing these skills as senior media adviser to Cameron.
Guardian political editor Michael White said Coulson’s testimony recalled a scene from Casablanca when Captain Renault (Claude Rains) closes Rick’s Bar telling Humphrey Bogart: "I’m shocked, I’m shocked to find gambling going on here."
An email was produced showing that the News of the World‘s chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck was up to his neck in the phone-tapping affair but he was unavailable for questioning. Where is he? "Currently in Peru."
During the three-hour interrogation, the News team also revealed that James Murdoch, executive chairman of News International, was "appraised" of the secretly arranged $2 million pay-out to Gordon Taylor, CEO of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
If James knew, did he tell his father? Commonsense would say that he picked up the phone and told Rupert that the group was spending $2 million to settle a court action and bury it from public scrutiny.
But News Group isn’t offering any such narrative. It is maintaining the line that the Sun King was far removed from the criminal acts of his servants. Like much of what appears in print in Murdoch’s ratbag-written, war-fevered, looney-tuned crumbling empire, it is simply beyond belief.
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