The best selling British newspaper ever made a swift exit from new stands last week, when News Corp – the company owned by Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon – decided to pull the plug amid a furore over the now infamous phone hacking scandal. If this sudden end to the 168-year-old publication was meant to ensure an end to the torrent of allegations of phone hacking pouring into the public domain, it failed miserably. In fact the allegations have now spread to another News Corp paper – the Sun – with the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown claiming that the publication illegally obtained medical records relating to his son Fraser, which they used to announce that he has cystic fibrosis.
The scandal has been rumbling along for at least five years, but due to the status of the victims – celebrities, mostly – the public just did not care. However the whole thing came alive when it emerged that the News of the World is said to have hacked into the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the schoolgirl murdered in 2002. The public were appalled by the fact that Glen Mulcaire – a private investigator at the News of the World – had deleted some of Milly’s messages to allow new ones to be received. This gave the family hope that Milly was alive. Then new allegations surfaced, saying that the paper had hacked the phones of families of deceased military personnel and relatives of the victims of the 7/7 bombings. I have one question – what on earth could they find out that was news-worthy? In an investigation by the police in 2005 over the hacking of the voicemails of various Royals, Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman – a journalist – were both jailed. The then Editor – Andy Coulson – resigned over the saga in 2007 (see below).
The woman in charge of the newspaper at the time when the alleged phone hacking occurred (bar the episode with the Royals) was Rebekah Brooks, then Editor and now CEO of News International – a subsidiary of News Corp. There have been many calls for her resignation – which it is said she offered twice before the closure of the News of the World – but she appears to be somewhat of a darling of the Murdochs, who have kept her on. Ms Brooks denies any knowledge of the phone hacking techniques employed by her staff, which means one of two things: either she is lying, or she was very bad at her job. Had the Murdoch’s accepted her first offer to resign, public anger may have been diffused and 200 people would have kept their jobs at the News of the World. Therefore, I support the argument that she must go.
But the scandal hasn’t just tainted journalists working for Mr Murdoch, several important MPs and members of the Met have been caught up in the fallout. Even David Cameron is in a bit of a pickle. He seems to have no control over anything and misjudged the situation by saying there needed to be a media regulator ‘with teeth’. Many in Britain saw this as an attack on the free press – which may or may not be true – but it was a stupid thing to say. Many also argue that politicians are too close to the press establishment: Mr Cameron also faces questions about his friendship with Ms Brooks, which has recently turned into very bad PR. Most damaging, however, was Mr Cameron’s decision to hire Andy Coulson as his Communications Director n 2007, months after he had been forced to resign. Personally, I would say this was one of Cameron’s worst decisions – it was bound to end badly. And end badly it did, when Mr Coulson resigned again, this time from Downing St, in 2010. In July 2011, Mr Coulson was arrested as part of a police investigation. Mr Cameron has tried to save-face a little by ordering not one but two public inquiries – what good can come out of them is questionable now that the News of the World has ceased publication.
The last piece of the puzzle is the Met Police, which has failed on multiple counts. Firstly, rumours are rife that police officers accepted payment from the newspaper in return for information, including the phone numbers used in hacking. This leads to serious questions about integrity and warrants an investigation from the IPCC, if you ask me. Secondly, the police seem to have botched their first investigation back in 2005. Although they had collected Mr Mulcaire’s notebooks which contained thousands of phone numbers, they failed to notify potential victims. They knew that Milly Dowler’s phone had been targeted but did not tell the family. Then, when leads ran dry, the police cancelled the investigation. When the Met began to consider reopening the case London was hit by the 7/7 bombings and attention, it is said, turned to counter-terrorism. That seems fair, at least.
The news coverage of this sorry saga has been relentless and repetitive, but there is another level. This is to do with media ethics. At what point does the holy-grail notion of freedom of the press go too far? (I’m not answering this – comment with your views.) I for one will not miss another big-headlined tabloid, but as I have said before: if the public didn’t want gossip, the press would not publish it. Maybe the best thisng to come out of this scandal is a new and widespread awareness of the quality of reporting we want to read.