The tabloid saga gripping Britain — a tangled tale of criminality and corruption, of politicians in thrall to the power of the press and of police in the press’s pay — has elements of farce but even more of tragedy. Take Graham Foulkes, whose 22-year-old son David was one of 52 people killed by suicide bombers in London six years ago. The police have informed Foulkes that in the immediate aftermath, his mobile phone may have been hacked by Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working for the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid owned by News International, the U.K. subsidiary of the U.S.-based media giant News Corp. “It fills me with horror,” Foulkes told the BBC. “You think it’s as dark as it can get. Then you realize there’s someone out there who can make it darker.”
That sentiment might resonate with the family of Milly Dowler, whose phone was allegedly hacked — and some of its messages erased — during the manhunt that followed her 2002 disappearance at age 13, raising false hopes that she was alive. The eyes and ears were everywhere: parents of other murdered children were alerted that they too may have been targeted, as well as the relatives of dead soldiers and even the police who were investigating the tabloids for their tactics — nearly 4,000 people in all. Nothing was sacred; no one was safe. Getting the story was everything.
For decades there have been three main forces in British politics: the Conservative and Labour parties, alternately holding power and seeking it, and Rupert Murdoch and his “red-tops,” the News of the World and the Sun, so called for the scarlet mastheads that signaled to readers there would be nothing too highbrow in their pages. The tabloids are fast and raw and raunchy, a torment to celebrities who put any premium on privacy and a snarling check on the arrogance of politicians who pad expense reports or fool around on the side. So much power, so much promise — it had to be painful to issue a death warrant for the 168-year-old News of the World, executed on July 10 by Murdoch’s son and heir apparent James.
The killing of the lucrative tabloid was intended to bury the scandal that threatened this extraordinary power base. Instead, it has brought Murdoch, the Australian-born founder, chairman and CEO of News Corp., to the drama’s center stage.
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