The British press are in an uproar this weekend over the just-won’t-die story about how News International (the U.K. subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corporation, hereafter referenced as NewsCorp) “journalists” at News of the World (NotW) “hack[ed] into the mobile phone records of celebrities and public figures.” It should be news when journalists are arrested for privacy violations.
In 2007, one NotW reporter, former royal editor Clive Goodman, and one private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, were convicted and jailed. But the story doesn’t end there.
Last week, Ian Edmondson, who had been news editor at NotW since 2005, and current NotW chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck were “arrested on suspicion of unlawfully intercepting mobile phone voicemail messages.” Scotland Yard has resumed the investigation into phone hacking (“Operation Weeting”).
Adding to the drama, the Prime Minister’s communication chief, Andy Coulson, stepped down in January amid speculation that while editor of NotW he was intimately involved in the scandal, an allegation he has denied even though he resigned after the scandal was made public in 2007.
On Friday, the company admitted liability “for accessing phone message accounts without consent.” Despite the mea culpa, James Murdoch (Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corporation, Europe and Asia) seemingly thinks this is No Big Deal:
You talk about a reputation crisis – actually the business is doing really well. It shows what we were able to do is really put this problem into a box.
Put the “problem” in a box. Ah. Translated: we need to make sure that this admission of liability doesn’t impact our proposed purchase of BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting), the largest pay-TV broadcaster in the United Kingdom. Oh, and Murdoch the younger was chief executive of BSkyB back when this scandal began.
Dear Misters Murdoch: the “problem” isn’t simply that a “news” organization has admitted liability for illegal activity conducted by its employees after having paid people off to keep quiet.
It’s the nature of that illegal activity, one that goes to the heart of public trust. Although some stories imply that the targets of the illegal eavesdropping were celebrities, the list includes members of the government:
We know that Labour’s culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, who was the minister overseeing the media, was hacked, as was her husband David Mills; the former deputy prime minister, Lord Prescott, has been told that the News of the World was listening to his messages; and it seems likely that Tony Blair’s communications director Alastair Campbell was also a victim.
It is beyond my understanding why one agency of the government would approve this deal while another is investigating criminal wrongdoing. Does corporate behavior truly not matter? Is money all, even in Britain?
Why it’s important on this side of the pond: NewsCorp owns the Wall Street Journal and FOX News.
The Wall Street Journal is the number one newspaper in the United States, based on circulation (2,061,142 – Sept 2010). FOX News, based on 4th quarter 2010 data, is the “solid number one” cable news channel, followed by MSNBC and then CNN. For February 2011, “Fox News Channel had the five top rated programs in cable news” with Bill O’Reilly leading with 3.2 million viewers. (Consumers say that they value local TV news more than cable.)
And corporate culture …. usually begins at the top.
Timeline and Highlights
This scandal dates to 2006:
[In the summer of 2006] Clive Goodman, who covered the royals for News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid, was arrested for hacking into the phone records of three royal family staffers. He was imprisoned in January 2007. A private investigator working for News Corp., Glenn Mulcaire, was also convicted in the case and admitted to hacking into the records of five other targets, including the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Gordon Taylor.
Mulcaire’s notes included “[t]he names and contact details of up to 3,000 public figures, including actors and politicians.”
In 2007, NewsCorp insisted that Goodman “acted alone.” However, the editor of News of the World, Andy Coulson, resigned; in so doing, he was able to dodge testifying before the Press Complaints Commission. And six months later he walked through Britain’s revolving door, showing up as Conservative Leader David Cameron’s communications chief. Today, Cameron is PM; in January, Coulson resigned as his communications chief.
In 2008, News Corp was found guilty (and financially liable) for setting up a celebrity with prostitutes and then secretly filming the action (emphasis added):
When the high court last summer ordered the News of the World to pay damages to Max Mosley for secretly filming him with prostitutes, the paper was furious. In an angry leader column, it insisted that public figures must maintain standards. “It is not for the powerful and the influential to run to the courts to gag newspapers from publishing stories that are TRUE,” it said. “This is all about the public’s right to know.”
Even as those words were being published, lawyers and senior executives from News International’s subsidiary News Group were preparing to run to court to gag Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, who was suing the News of the World for its undisclosed involvement in the illegal interception of messages left on his mobile phone.
The Guardian understands that the full police file shows that several thousand public figures were targeted by investigators, including, during one month in 2006: John Prescott, then deputy prime minister…
Somehow, News Corp persuaded the “police” as well as the judge in the Taylor case to seal the file, even though “it contained prima facie evidence of criminal activity.” Moreover, this stonewalling occurred despite evidence that the corruption of the newsroom extended beyond a single reporter:
The Scotland Yard files included paperwork which revealed that, contrary to News Group’s denial, Mulcaire had provided a recording of the messages on Taylor’s phone to a News of the World journalist who had transcribed them and emailed them to a senior reporter, and that a News of the World executive had offered Mulcaire a substantial bonus for a story specifically related to the intercepted messages.
The paperwork from the Information Commission revealed the names of 31 journalists working for the News of the World and the Sun, together with the details of government agencies, banks, phone companies and others who were conned into handing over confidential information. This is an offence under the Data Protection Act unless it is justified by public interest.
In July 2009, The Guardian broke the hidden story:
Rupert Murdoch’s News Group News papers has paid out more than £1m to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal evidence of his journalists’ repeated involvement in the use of criminal methods to get stories.
When The Guardian broke the story in July 2009, NewsCorp steadfastly denied any wrong-doing. In January 2011, the company began what BBC business editor Robert Peston dubbed the BP strategy:
[C]ompany suffers a disaster; company offers comprehensive financial settlement to victims of the disaster; company admits to its own shortcomings, but implies that an entire industry has also engaged in similar flawed practices.
News International said in its statement: “Following an extensive internal investigation and disclosures through civil legal cases, News International has decided to approach some civil litigants with an unreserved apology and an admission of liability in cases meeting specific criteria.
There are 24 litigants; NewsCorp is offering an apology and settlement to eight of them.
News International is making the announcement today because it has approached Mr Justice Vos, who is hearing the cases against News International, with a proposal for a group litigation order, which is a way of settling all the cases as a group.
News International said it will continue to cooperate with the Metropolitan Police enquiry. It is not clear whether it will dismiss further members of staff, following the recent departure of the news editor of the News of the World, Ian Edmondson.
Unanswered questions include how the H did News Corp get the judge to seal the records in 2007? What happened in the intervening four years re “police” investigations? Why did Scotland Yard go public this year?
A closing soapbox note: This is public interest journalism, an endangered species in today’s environment. The Guardian has been working on this story for years. That’s not possible without deep pockets, a commitment to speaking truth to power and the resources/reputation needed to ferret out those truths.
Known for gnawing at complex questions like a terrier with a bone. Digital evangelist, writer, teacher. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles. @kegill (Twitter and Mastodon.social); wiredpen.com