LONDON — 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
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 United States, 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 British satellite TV
company BSkyB more palatable.
One of Murdoch’s closest confidants and senior
executives, Rebekah Brooks, is now under pressure to resign over the
hacking controversy. And Murdoch’s bid for majority ownership of BSkyB
is currently under scrutiny by government officials and critics who warn
that too much power is being concentrated in the hands of a man they
blame for degrading journalism, politics and public life.
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
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 their
daughter’s 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
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 under way.
“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 on 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.
“MPs (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
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. While 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 earlier 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?”
(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.
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