British tabloids have never been well mannered. In the pursuit of stories, reporters at the red-tops (and, indeed, at many of their more stately broadsheet rivals) have pushed the boundaries of the acceptable for decades. “There’s been a culture of misbehavior for a long time,” said Roy Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror who now writes a media blog for The Guardian. “Stealing pictures from mantelpieces, conning your way into people’s homes, dressing up as doctors, all of that.” Such conduct “was disgraceful, vulgar, absurd,” Greenslade said. “But it wasn’t illegal.”
There are plenty of examples of reporters going to extreme lengths to satisfy exacting news desks without quite veering into obvious criminality. There was the tabloid freelancer who hid in a church organ for several days, defecating in a plastic bag, to get pictures of Madonna’s baby’s christening; there was the time Rebekah Brooks, then a lowly reporter, disguised herself as a cleaner to infiltrate the newsroom of a sister publication and nab a copy of their scoop.
But the great tapestry of tabloid infamy has always been viewed as an entertaining appendage to public life, mischievous rather than malicious. The UK press looks across the Atlantic and—with, to my British sensibility, some justification—views a moribund print culture that spends more time pontificating about morals than getting stories and making them interesting to readers. As the former Times editor and Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins once put it, “I was trained as a reptile lurking in the gutter whose sole job was ‘to get the bloody story.’” Not for nothing does the trophy for the country’s most prestigious investigative journalism award, the Bevins Prize, show a determined rat nosing up a drainpipe.
When the first signs of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal came to light in 2006, the paper and News International sought to frame it as just another notch in this exuberant history. It was certainly not a matter that seemed likely to bring the newspaper group to the brink of disaster. It began with a brief diary item about Prince William’s knee, detailing how he’d strained a tendon during a game of soccer, and paid a visit to the doctor. For royal editor Clive Goodman, who reportedly held the newspaper’s record for the most consecutive lead stories on the front page, it was small beer.
Trivial as it was, though, it prompted questions amongst the royals. Only a very few people, all of them trusted confidantes, had known about the doctor’s appointment. Barring a senseless and implausible betrayal, there seemed to be no legitimate way that the story could have been sourced. The next week, the royals’ suspicions were confirmed: another story appeared, also in the News of the World, also by Goodman, and again only known by a trusted few. The only recorded mention of it had come in a voicemail message. A police investigation discovered Goodman had been using Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator paid by the paper, to access the messages of famous people who had not changed their phone’s default remote access code. Goodman apparently felt so secure in the practice that he was unconcerned about using the technique to write stories that could not have been obtained by any other means.
But by the News of the World’s account, it was a “rogue incident.” The newspaper robustly defended itself as an ethical organization, insisting that only eight people had been hacked, and that Mulcaire and Goodman, who were sent to jail, had been operating on their own initiative. When Andy Coulson, who succeeded Brooks as editor in 2003, resigned, he did not admit any knowledge or responsibility, and instead portrayed the decision as a simple matter of honor. The lingering whiff of scandal did not prevent him from becoming the Conservative Party’s director of communications in July 2007. And although there were inevitable questions over whether the practice had begun during Brooks’s reign, she managed to ride them out.