When we hear the word “scandal” in the same sentence as “politicians” or “celebrities”, we’re used to assuming that an elected official, actor, or sports star has done something wrong and is being subjected to a harsh media spotlight.
But over in the United Kingdom, there’s a widening scandal involving politicians and celebrities in which the wrongdoers actually belong to the media world.
The scandal is known as the News of the World hacking affair because it concerns that tabloid’s use of private investigators to intercept voicemail messages left for people the tabloid was interested in, including members of the royal family, politicians, celebrities, and even a murder victim.
The scandal first came to light in 2005 when it was discovered that a News of the World editor (Clive Goodman) and a private investigator (Glenn Mulcaire) employed by News of the World had gained access to voicemail systems belonging to aides of Prince William, who is second in line to the throne of the United Kingdom. Following a police investigation (begun after the royal household had passed their suspicions along), Goodman and Mulcaire were jailed. At the same time, the News of the World’s chief editor Andy Coulson suddenly resigned.
While these events created a stir in the United Kingdom at the time, they were only the opening act. In July 2009, The Guardian alleged that what had been revealed in 2006 and 2007 was only the tip of the iceberg, and that evidence held by the Metropolitan Police proved that there were more victims:
According to one source with direct knowledge of the Scotland Yard evidence, News of the World journalists were systematically using private investigators who would break the law to obtain information, hacking into thousands of mobile phones and supplying raw material which was then converted into stories that made no reference to their real source.
The Guardian continued to uncover more and more sordid details about the hacking affair and the bungled police investigation that followed it as 2009 and 2010 wore on. As these stories were being published, a round of lawsuits were filed against News of the World by lawyers representing many of the victims. Just last April, News Corporation decided to cut its losses and settle with eight of the victims (who apparently had the most promising cases). The settlements included an admission of liability, an apology, and financial compensation.
However, those settlements have not made the phone hacking scandal go away.
On Monday, The Guardian reported that the police had uncovered evidence that Mulcaire (the aforementioned private investigator employed by News of the World and jailed in 2006) had in 2002 hacked into the voicemail box of a missing schoolgirl, listened to messages left by her family, and even deleted some of those messages, leading the family to believe she might be alive.
The schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, is well known to the British public because her disappearance nearly a decade ago was widely reported upon.
(Some months after she went missing, her body was found; serial killer Levi Bellfield was convicted of her murder just last month).
This latest revelation has sparked a massive uproar in the United Kingdom. Furious members of Parliament from each of the UK’s major political parties are demanding a renewed investigation, preferably one led by a judge (a position articulated by many Liberal Democratic MPs). A number of companies have stopped advertising in the News of the World, including Ford, Mitsubishi, Renault, Lloyds Banking Group and Virgin Holidays. Other advertisers are reviewing their options and may follow suit.
Additionally, the attorney representing the Dowlers has said the family is likely to take legal action against News of the World and News International. (Incidentally, News International is currently headed by one Rebekah Brooks, who — surprise, surprise! — was editor of the News of the World during the time that this hacking took place.)
Appropriately, the scandal now appears to be taking a financial toll on News Corporation itself. Its stock fell 3.6% during afternoon trading today (to $17.47) as markets posted light gains overall.
Ironically, Rupert Murdoch himself is probably to blame for the extent of this scandal. The reason that new and damaging revelations keep coming to light is because News Corporation tried to escape accountability and cover up what its sleazy Sunday tabloid had done. For instance, News International is alleged to have made improper payments to the police, apparently to ensure that the public would not know what its “journalists” had done.
Murdoch owns so much of the media in Britain that he has effectively intimidated the police and the political establishment from properly investigating what happened.
But he and his subordinates’ attempts at suppression have failed.
The truth is, at last, getting out.
It would be fitting if the eventual result of this scandal was a diminishing of Rupert Murdoch’s power — both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In our view, Murdoch and many of his properties are toxic influences on the communities and countries were they exist. News of the World and Fox Noise Channel are merely the most obvious and careless bad operators that Murdoch owns.
News Corporation is now scrambling to try and limit the fallout from affecting its proposed acquisition of British broadcaster BSkyB. Critics of Murdoch in Britain fiercely oppose the deal because it would further consolidate Murdoch’s power. However, David Cameron’s government is expected to eventually sign off on it.
We hope the people in charge of granting or refusing regulatory approval come to their senses and realize that concentrated media ownership is a poisonous thing. Media diversity is incredibly important in a democracy. When one man owns the news, society suffers. This scandal is certainly proof of that.