For months, Britain’s scandal over scoop-hungry reporters hacking into the cellphones of celebrities and politicians drew shrugs from the general public, which viewed the affair as a rarified dispute between the rich and famous and those who write about them.
Revulsion swept the nation Tuesday amid allegations that a sensationalist tabloid owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch also intercepted and tampered with voicemails left for a kidnapped 13-year-old girl whose body was later found dumped in the woods.
Britons from Prime Minister David Cameron on down declared their disgust over the accusations, the latest to hit Murdoch’s weekly News of the World.
The disturbing turn in a long-running scandal has raised troubling questions about the media magnate’s relationship with the British political establishment and police. It comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Australian-born Murdoch, who also operates Fox News in the U.S. and is seeking political approval to expand his already massive media empire in Britain.
News International, the British subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp., has been scrambling for months to contain the phone-hacking affair, in part to make his bid for control over British satellite TV company BSkyB more palatable to the public.
One of Murdoch’s closest confidants and senior executives, Rebekah Brooks, is now under pressure to resign over the hacking controversy. Murdoch’s bid for majority ownership of BSkyB has been awaiting approval for a year from the government, amid criticism that too much power is being concentrated in the hands of a man many blame for degrading journalism, politics and public life. Those warnings have been revived by the latest revelations of phone hacking, which occurred in 2002 when Rebekah Brooks, now a senior Murdoch executive at News International, was editor of the tabloid.
The new developments heighten the pressure on both police and politicians to show greater resolve in confronting News International. Critics say the authorities have been too timid in their investigation for fear of angering Murdoch, whose business interests allow him to exert a powerful —some say baleful — influence on British society.
A News International spokesman said the company was cooperating fully with the police and would “get to the bottom” of the “very distressing allegations.”
Until Tuesday, the scandal mostly involved pro athletes, political bigwigs and movie stars such as Jude Law who were among thousands of possible victims of phone hacking by Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator hired by the News of the World to ferret out information and scoops. Mulcaire and the tabloid’s royal-family reporter were sent to jail in 2007 for illegally accessing private voicemails, including messages left by Princes William and Harry for their aides.
A new investigation by Scotland Yard, which was criticized for going easy on the tabloid the first time around in order to preserve its own long-cozy relationship with the paper, has resulted in the arrest of several more reporters and editors — and in the startling revelation that first began to emerge Monday evening.
In 2002, a teenager named Milly Dowler vanished in southern England, a disappearance that made national headlines and sparked a major manhunt. Her parents issued tearful pleas for her safe return, including in an interview given to the News of the World, but the 13-year-old’s remains were later found in a wood. Only last month, a nightclub bouncer was convicted of her murder after a highly emotional trial.
According to the Guardian newspaper, police have discovered evidence that the News of the World hacked into Milly’s voicemails after she went missing, publishing at least one story based on the information gleaned.
Making matters worse, Mulcaire allegedly deleted some of the messages to free up Milly’s mailbox for more incoming calls, in the process interfering with a police investigation.
The deletions cruelly raised the Dowlers’ hopes that their daughter was still alive, because they thought she had erased the messages herself. Most likely, Milly was already dead by then.
Police are now trying to determine whether the alleged hacking hampered their investigation of the kidnapping and murder, which could mean more legal woes for Mulcaire.
“This is a truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation,” Prime Minister Cameron said Tuesday, adding that it was “quite shocking that someone could do this, actually knowing that the police were trying to find this person and trying to find out what had happened.”
The Dowlers’ lawyer, Mark Lewis, said the family was likely to take legal action against the News of the World. They were told of the alleged hacking in April, when the trial of Milly’s killer was underway.
“Every parent’s worst nightmare is happening,” Lewis told the BBC. “Their daughter’s been murdered, the prosecution is taking place and then they’re suddenly told that there is more to come — pressure on top of pressure, relentless, relentless grief for them.”
Media commentator Roy Greenslade said the new allegations have pushed the scandal onto a bigger stage, with Murdoch and News International now the target of widespread opprobrium.
“It’s something which resonates with the public,” Greenslade said, “unlike the previous hacking investigations into sports people and celebrities and PR agents and managers. This is something that people can identify as being an intrusion into the privacy of [ordinary] people in difficult circumstances.”
In addition to public outrage, the News of the World faces tough questions as to whether Brooks, its editor at the time, knew about the alleged phone hacking.
Brooks has since been promoted to head of News International. In a statement to her staff Tuesday, she said she was “sickened” to learn that Milly’s voicemails had apparently been intercepted but gave no indication she would resign, despite mounting calls for her to do so.
Besides the News of the World, Murdoch’s properties include the Times of London and the Sun, Britain’s bestselling tabloid, a right-wing daily whose political backing can spell success or failure for a candidate or party. That has made British politicians leery of alienating Murdoch and his subordinates.
Members of Parliament “and especially government ministers have always been running scared of Murdoch, not necessarily because of him as a person but because of the power of a media empire that has somewhere around 10 million readers a day,” said Mike Jempson, the head of MediaWise, an organization that promotes media ethics. “They have put all their efforts into currying favor rather than expecting more transparency and more responsibility from his papers.”
To critics, Murdoch’s British publications have demeaned public discourse through such practices as paying for information, setting up stings or traps (complete with hidden microphones and cameras) of public figures, running prurient stories and pandering to the lowest common denominator. Although some other journals also indulge in the same practices, Murdoch’s lead the way, critics say.
“He sets the climate, and the climate is one of ‘obtain your exclusives, obtain your stories to sell more newspapers through any means possible,’” said Greenslade.
News International is now trying to reduce the fallout by persuading hacking victims who have sued the company to forgo trial and accept a financial settlement. Actress Sienna Miller, one of the highest-profile targets, accepted a formal apology from the company and $160,000 in damages last month.
The hacking scandal has become a major headache for Cameron, the British leader. His former communications director, Andy Coulson, stepped down this year after reporters began raising questions about his tenure as the News of the World’s editor when Mulcaire and the royal-family reporter were jailed in 2007.
Cameron is also a personal friend of Brooks, who invited him to her home near Oxford over Christmas.
His government is still expected to approve the sale to Murdoch of BSkyB as long as the respected Sky News network is spun off to help it maintain its editorial independence. The government says the hacking controversy cannot be taken into account in its decision of whether Murdoch’s purchase of BSkyB is permissible because the question is purely one of diversity of media ownership, not of moral suitability.
Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, agrees that the two issues are separate. But he called Tuesday for a judicial inquiry into the hacking scandal to find out how it happened and to prevent a recurrence.
“This is the very least that is needed to restore the reputation of British journalism,” Miliband told Sky News. “People will be asking where have we got to, that that was thought to be an acceptable way for parts of the British press to operate?”