On Thursday, July 7, James Murdoch announced that, in the wake of the paper’s escalating phone-hacking scandal, the 168-year-old News of the World would cease publication as of this coming Sunday. In CJR’s May/June 2011 issue, Archie Bland reported on the British media’s non-response to the scandal up to then. That piece is republished here.
When Rebekah Wade, then editor of the News of the World, felt that her newspaper had not been nominated for enough British Press Awards in 2002, she did not call her senior staff together to discuss how they might do better next year. She did not hire any new reporters. She did not congratulate her rivals who had been better favored.
Wade, who is now Rebekah Brooks, and Rupert Murdoch’s senior lieutenant in the UK, took particular umbrage at the absence of her storied investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood—known as the ‘fake sheikh’ for his preferred gotcha disguise—from the prize short lists. And so what she did was this: She paid the £3,000 or so it costs for a couple of tables at the starry awards do. Then she barred her staff from attending. Accordingly, when staffers from The Sun, the News of the World’s Murdoch-stablemate, stood on their chairs to chant “Fix! Fix! Fix!” as the Daily Mirror swept the boards, the only witness sitting at either of her tables was a hapless intern sent along in full robes and a headdress in Mahmood’s honor. Even in the colorful history of the awards, where punch-ups and slanging matches are ten a penny—The New York Times’s Sarah Lyall once wrote that the awards less resembled a celebration of journalism than a “soccer match attended by a club of misanthropic inebriates”—it was somewhat unusual. The Pulitzer Prize winners’ luncheon, you cannot help but feel, has never seen anything like it.
For Wade and the News of the World, on the other hand, such drama was in those days fairly ordinary, and just as likely to occur in the getting of its stories as the feting of them. The most infamous of Britain’s bumptious tabloids, its circulation of 2.7 million is 700,000 more than its nearest Sunday rival. Fed by a diet of celebrity skin and moral outrage, it has reigned unchallenged for as long as anyone can remember. The other tabloids wish they could emulate it; the broadsheets wish they didn’t have to try.
Under those circumstances, you would imagine that the news in August 2006 that agents of the paper had been illegally accessing Buckingham Palace voicemails would trigger a gleeful pile-on amongst its Fleet Street rivals. The case for broader retribution in the most ruthless media market in the world only got stronger when The Guardian reported in 2009 that thousands of others had had their voicemails illegally accessed. And in 2010, when a team of New York Times reporters produced an article making it still clearer that the rot had spread from the News of The World to Scotland Yard and the Prime Minister’s office, the press attention could reasonably have been expected to reach fever pitch.
But to this day, there has been no such savaging. As responsibility for the sins of News International, the British print arm of Murdoch’s global media empire News Corporation, has edged further and further up the food chain, the vast majority of the British press have done their utmost to look the other way. That careful silence allowed the company’s initial defense—that wrongdoing was confined to a couple of bad apples—to stand for years longer than it should have. And it left many key questions unanswered: among them, whether the so-called phone hacking was still going on, whether it took place at other publications, and whether Rebekah Brooks, now chief executive of News International, had sanctioned the practice in her time as editor. Today the taint of scandal is getting ever closer to Brooks. If a crop of pending lawsuits from hacking victims successfully pins responsibility on her and her fellow senior managers, News Corporation’s already considerable legal exposure could balloon to many millions of pounds.
The explanations of that silence—and of its consequences—tell us something just as disturbing about Britain’s media as the phone hacking itself. And they suggest that the feral behavior on show at the annual awards jamboree was only the tip of the iceberg.
Rats and Reptiles