Macabre Tabloid Hacking Scandal May Finally Force British Newsrooms to Come Clean

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Bob Dowler, father of slain schoolgirl Milly Dowler, reads a statement next to his daughter Gemma outside the Old Bailey courthouse in London (Photo: Paul Hackett / Reuters)

UPDATE: Car manufacturer Ford has suspended its advertising with the News of the World pending the outcome of an inquiry into the latest hacking allegations.

They moralize endlessly, but Britain’s tabloid newspapers are notoriously relaxed when it comes to their own moral code. Even so, claims that Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator employed by the News of the World, hacked into the voicemail of murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler — and actually deleted some messages to make space for new callers, accidentally giving her family false hope she may be alive — has caused widespread revulsion and may finally force a full investigation into the dark practices of British newsrooms.

Such an investigation is long overdue. As advertising revenues and circulations have fallen, the mass-market tabloids — the so-called red tops — and some of their supposedly upmarket competitors have shown an increasing disregard for journalistic good practice. In some cases, journalists and freelance investigators have breached the law. And the authorities that should have reined them in turned a blind eye. Politicians did so because they sought the favor and feared the enmity of the popular press. The police did so because they failed to take the crimes seriously (like many members of the British public, they had little sympathy for wealthy celebrities and pampered politicians bleating about violations of their privacy); police resources were stretched; and some police were in the pay of the newspapers. In 2003 a committee of MPs looking into media intrusion interviewed the editors of the two British tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Sun and the News of the World. “We have paid police for information in the past,” said Rebekah Wade, the Sun editor. “As I said, we have always operated within the code and within the law,” countered NOTW editor Andy Coulson.

Wade, now remarried and known as Rebekah Brooks, has gone on to become Murdoch’s chief executive in Britain. She resisted calls to resign after the allegations about Dowler, e-mailing her staff to show her own outrage:

We were all appalled and shocked when we heard about these allegations yesterday. I have to tell you that I am sickened that these events are alleged to have happened. Not just because I was editor of the News of the World at the time but if the accusations are true, the devastating effect on Milly Dowler’s family is unforgivable.

In 2007 Coulson issued a mea culpa, accepting “ultimate responsibility” and resigning from Murdoch’s employ after the conviction of NOTW royal correspondent Clive Goodman together with Mulcaire for hacking into the mobile phones of Britain’s royals and their staff and friends. While the police may not have been too concerned about the mistreatment of common-or-garden public figures, the royals were another matter. Even so, officers focused their inquiries on the two key figures at NOTW, apparently ignoring evidence seized from Mulcaire that suggested the technique had been used far more widely. Dowler’s name reportedly appeared in 11,000 pages of impounded documents; so did the names of a wide range of prominent entertainers, sports stars, politicians and their contacts. The police did not alert these potential victims. At the time of Dowler’s disappearance, in 2002, Brooks née Wade had been editor of NOTW, with Coulson as her deputy.

With Goodman and Mulcaire (briefly) behind bars and Coulson protesting that he knew nothing of their activities yet standing down from his job, the matter might have rested there. But Coulson took a new job, as director of communications for a young politician tilting at the top job in politics. As future British Prime Minister David Cameron came closer to realizing his ambition, his sidekick came under new scrutiny. The left-leaning Guardian made much of the running, reporting allegations in 2009 that up to 3,000 people had been targeted for hacking by NOTW journalists and pursuing the story with vigor after Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. The issue was also raised in the House of Commons, frequently by Labour MP Tom Watson, a former minister who in 2009 accepted “substantial damages” from the Sun, which had wrongly alleged his involvement in a plot to smear Conservative politicians.

Coulson finally relinquished his post in Downing Street at the beginning of this year, after his former newspaper suspended its news editor Ian Edmonson amid fresh claims of phone hacking and after the actress Sienna Miller launched a civil action that she would go on to settle in May, winning £100,000 (about $161, 000) in damages and an apology. News Group Newspapers, the subsidiary of News International that publishes NOTW, issued a statement expressing regret for

the distress caused to [Miller] by the accessing of her voicemail messages, the publication of private information in the articles and the related harassment she suffered as a consequence.

An undated photo of Milly Dowler (Photo: Surrey Police / PA)

Such redress is not open to Milly Dowler or her family. Nor will simple apologies quell calls for a public inquiry. Dowler’s case, if proven, shows that hacking was going on well before the period of 2004-06 that has been under scrutiny. Edmonson and two of his NOTW colleagues, chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck and senior reporter James Weatherup, have been arrested and bailed, but Operation Weeting, a police inquiry into phone hacking, has also seen the arrest of two people not employed by News International, Laura Elston, a royal reporter for the Press Association, and another woman, reported to be Terenia Taras, a former girlfriend of a NOTW executive. Few people with direct experience of British journalism believe that NOTW was the only publication to deploy illicit techniques in pursuit of headlines.

Moreover, opponents of Murdoch’s bid to take a majority stake in BSkyB, the British satellite broadcaster he founded, insist that the latest revelations raise questions over the deal. “To protect media plurality, News International has given assurances about protecting the independence of Sky News [by floating it on the stock market as a separate company],” says Tom Watson. The government should “look at the record of this organization … These guarantees are not worth the paper they’re written on.”

Watson maintains that the latest allegations about hacking represent the tip of an iceberg and that unnamed “whistle-blowers” have told him that a young girl murdered in 2002 also attracted the interest of the hackers. His sources claim that the father of Jessica Chapman, who was killed with her friend Holly Wells by a school caretaker, was also a target of hacking. (The claim was echoed by a former NOTW journalist secretly recorded by actor Hugh Grant talking about tabloid practices.) Many of the victims of hacking were not members of a privileged elite, says Watson, but ordinary people, some of them, like Chapman, Wells, Dowler and their families, already caught up in tragedies. He says:

Something has gone very wrong. How can the police think that they can sit on evidence that a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered had her phone hacked? I think they can reach that conclusion because they pretty much know the political class isn’t going to hold them to account. Why aren’t we going to do that? We’re scared of News International or even worse we’re doing seedy short-term deals for short-term gain.

The Dowler allegations are “a game changer,” Watson says. And the story is the lead in most broadsheets. Strangely, it has received scant attention in the red tops.