An extraordinary spectacle distilling the essence of Britain and ending with the spotlight on Sir Paul McCartney: if rumors and leaks prove accurate, that should be a fair summation of the official opening ceremony for the London Olympics due to unfurl on the evening of July 27. But it could also describe the hacking scandal that has unfurled since the revelation just over a year ago that Glenn Mulcaire, a private eye contracted to the Sunday tabloid News of the World, may have hacked into the voicemails of a murdered schoolgirl called Milly Dowler. The scandal has laid bare the workings of British public life, the clubby cosiness between the police and the popular press, politicians and newspaper proprietors—in particular one proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. And, in the week leading up to the Olympics, a series of developments finally gave an indication of how and when the saga might conclude: in court. Mulcaire and seven former employees of Murdoch—Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, Stuart Kuttner, who was managing editor of the News of the World, Ian Edmonson, the paper’s erstwhile news editor, Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup, former assistant news editors, and Neville Thurlbeck, who was the tabloid’s chief reporter—face charges of conspiring to hack phones. All those who have been charged deny the charges. McCartney, expected to perform the closing number at the Olympics opening ceremony, is among their 600 suspected targets.
The emeritus Beatle finds himself in company with former British government ministers and other celebrities, including Hollywood royalty. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt usually create a frisson on the red carpet. Their surprise appearance among the victims on the charge sheet raises questions about whether any hacking may have taken place in the U.S., potentially creating further repercussions for News Corporation, the U.S.-based parent of the News of the World, which was shuttered in July 2011 in an attempt to limit the damage to Murdoch’s empire.
That attempt signally failed. Murdoch’s new British tabloid, the Sun on Sunday, launched in February to plug the gap left by the News of the World, immediately captured the largest slice of the Sunday red-top market but with a circulation of 2.1 million still shifts 500,000 fewer copies than its tainted predecessor. And that’s the least of News Corp’s worries. The hacking revelations scuppered its bid to take full ownership of the British satellite broadcaster BSkyB, a deal that looked set for U.K. government approval. Last month, amid fears that the scandal would continue to impact on News Corp’s profitable film and TV businesses, the company announced plans to split in 2013. Those film and TV businesses, including Fox News and News Corp’s existing stake in BSkyB, will form the bigger, more robust of the two new entities. The publishing businesses including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, as well as the Sun on Sunday and its stablemates the daily Sun, the Times of London and the Sunday Times, will be hived off into a smaller company.
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Some analysts saw the move as a precursor to selling off the British newspapers, and this theory was given heft by the disclosure on July 21 that Murdoch had resigned his directorships on the boards of those newspapers as well as of some publishing holdings in the U.S., Australia and India. But finding a buyer to take on the British newspapers may not be easy, and not only because the storied Times bleeds red ink. “Any buyer would want to have the liabilities ring-fenced,” says Claire Enders, the founder of Enders Analysis, a company specializing in in-depth research and analysis of the media market.
Enders, who opposed News Corp’s attempt to secure full control of BSkyB on the grounds that the scale of News Corp’s combined newspaper and broadcast holdings would undermine the country’s media plurality, has also testified to the Leveson Inquiry, the independent inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press that was launched in the wake of the hacking revelations. That inquiry, too, drew to a close this week, by coincidence on the same day that the criminal charges relating to hacking were announced. It has heard from more than 650 witnesses and already shed light on the workings—and dysfunctions—of the press and some of the key institutions it is supposed to scrutinize. Though still to produce a report and recommendations, Leveson “will be looked back on a something with immense value for Britain,” says Enders, who already spies the glimmerings of a happy ending even before the start of any court cases. She cites the “gentle withdrawal from the frontline of influence of Rupert Murdoch in the newspaper space at least in the U.K. and probably in Australia as well” and, more poetically, “the disappearance of the stain that was below the surface” of British public life. The outcome, she says, is “really quite magical.”
A News Corp source sounds a darker note, suggesting that evidence revealed in court will still have the power to shock. And that seems likely, since the putative hacking victims include not only famous names but poignant ones. John Tulloch, a professor injured in terror attacks on London on 7 July 2005, features on the list. And so, of course, does Milly Dowler. Murdered, aged 13, she might not have expected to leave much of a legacy. Instead, the alleged attempts to access her voicemail after her death sparked a process that is redrawing the boundaries of public life in her home country and continues to rattle a corporate giant.