Anybody There?

Why the UK’s phone-hacking scandal met media silence

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

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.

At the time, the subject was treated as a niche media story rather than a matter of broad public interest. “It was scarcely reported,” said Peter Oborne, a respected political columnist for the The Daily Telegraph who hosted a 2010 documentary on the hacking. “It was as if it was something of incredibly minor importance. It was always well back on the inside pages, lost in a few paragraphs if it was mentioned at all.”

So it would remain for two years. Then, in July 2009, The Guardian’s Nick Davies wrote the first piece describing the true extent of the phone-hacking scandal. Davies uncovered evidence suggesting thousands had been victims, ranging from celebrities to politicians to ordinary people—including the parents of murdered children, it was later claimed—who had happened to find themselves caught up in something the News of the World thought was interesting. His story revealed that News International had quietly paid out more than £1 million in a series of cases brought by alleged hacking victims, settled on the condition that they sign gag orders. Furthermore, the article claimed that many victims were never informed by London’s Metropolitan Police, which had close ties to the paper, that their phones had been targeted. Later, it would be revealed that the Met held information that suggested other reporters were involved, but, possibly fearing retribution from an organization that Brooks had once told a parliamentary committee had paid police officers for information, failed to act on it. (Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who led the widely-criticized operation, later left the police to work for Murdoch’s Times as a columnist.)

Davies hoped other newspapers would join the hunt. “If you have one story that exposes wrongdoing by the media, by the police, by the political classes, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?” he said. “But no one followed it up at all.”

Silence on Fleet Street

Why? To some close observers, the answer is obvious. “Lots of people were doing it,” said Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette, a trade publication. “They think the best thing to do is let sleeping dogs lie.” The New York Times’s Don Van Natta Jr., a former London-based investigative correspondent who returned as part of a team assigned to the scandal, was shocked by what seemed to be a widespread reliance on such methods. “It was probably worse than I had thought, and done more openly, and more systematically,” he said. “And I had the very clear sense that it was not just the News of the World.

British newspaper proprietors have enjoyed a longstanding tradition of covering each other’s travails as minimally as possible, lest wounded rivals take revenge. Seven of the people I spoke to in the reporting of this story used some variation on the phrase “dog doesn’t eat dog.”

According to reporters across Fleet Street, it is clear that there can be negative professional consequences for those who report this kind of story—though there is never a need to make that fact explicit. “It would have been an absolute joke if someone had pitched it—they would have been laughed at, treated with suspicion, even,” said a journalist who used to work at Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, two newspapers also renowned for a certain ruthlessness in pursuit of a scoop. “Everyone knew that that was the state of affairs.”

Besides the aversion to the story at a senior level, there’s a sense that in London’s incestuous media scene there are simply too many journalists at any given paper who at some point or another will have been involved in similarly questionable activities. “There’s an acceptance that what was going on was dodgy,” says a staffer at Mirror Group, which publishes the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, and The People. “But a lot of people know the people. And there’s so much crossover. There are lots of stories that people [at Mirror Group] are tied up in this.”

In November 2009, the Press Complaints Commission, a voluntary regulator frequently derided as toothless, declared that there was no new evidence of phone hacking at the News of the World. (Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger resigned from the body in protest.) Davies’s follow-ups failed to get traction. Andy Coulson stuck to his guns and hung on to his politically sensitive job despite mounting evidence suggesting that if he had indeed operated in blissful ignorance of his underlings’ criminal activity, he had been an utterly incompetent top editor.

An American Intervention

That the situation changed does no great credit to the British press. In March 2010, The New York Times dispatched Van Natta, Jo Becker, and Graham Bowley to London. They would break the story back open.

“Within the first couple of days of reporting, it was clear that there was radio silence on this throughout the British press,” Van Natta said. “Even The Guardian had let go a little bit. That was an advantage for us, quite frankly.”

Given the luxury of six months of reporting, the trio unearthed explosive quotes from Sean Hoare, a former reporter and close friend of Coulson who had left the News of the World under a cloud of drink and drugs. He said he had been actively encouraged by Coulson to raid voicemails. Other staffers painted a picture of an office where phone hacking was pervasive and unmissable. “Everyone knew,” one of them was quoted saying. “The office cat knew.”

The piece gave the story new life, and gave fresh ammunition to those who found it impossible to believe that the practice had not preceded Coulson’s reign, and had not been known higher up the food chain. “It seemed to me far more likely that Coulson inherited a regime that already existed,” said Oborne. “He found himself in charge of what was basically a criminal organization.”

With that inescapable sense that something broader had happened, and as the political ramifications became clear, coverage grew. The Financial Times and The Independent (where I have worked since early 2008) have joined The Guardian in vigorously pursuing the story, and the BBC and Channel 4 have aired investigations with new evidence suggesting the rogue reporter claim was bogus.

As that line of defense has become ever more laughable, there has been a visible change in strategy at News International, which seems to have decided to go as far as it can in cleaning house. This January, Rupert Murdoch abandoned a trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos to head to London instead. During his visit the company gave Scotland Yard e-mails implicating news editor Ian Edmondson, albeit only discovered five years after the acts in question. The police deemed it “significant new information,” and reopened their investigation. A week earlier, after the Crown Prosecution Service announced that they would be reviewing all of the evidence in their possession on the case, Coulson had finally resigned as Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director, a position he’d assumed after Conservatives won the May 2010 elections.

Even the Murdoch-owned Times felt compelled to put Coulson’s resignation on the front page. But a better indication of Fleet Street’s continuing unease might be that the ardently left-wing Daily Mirror, despite it being a blow to a government they ordinarily gleefully bait, only found space for the longed-for departure low on page 15.

Even in this period when the story has been at its most obviously compelling and unavoidable, the broad approach has not exactly been one of ferocious investigation; an archival search of major papers’ daily and Sunday editions from a seven-month-plus span following The New York Times’s investigation shows that The Guardian published 299 articles on the scandal, and The Independent 194. After that, things fall off quickly: The Times ran 85 articles; The Daily Telegraph 73; the Daily Express 65; the Daily Mail 61. The Daily Mirror published 16. And The Sun and the News of the World published just nine between them.

Indeed, whatever the outliers at The Guardian and The Independent do, their work can do little to alter the tenor of the overall coverage. Those two newspapers, the smallest of the nationals, account for just 445,000 sales in a market of 8.93 million—less than 5 percent.

There are those who insist that the widespread decision not to cover the story is driven by straightforward news judgment—and that ulterior motives drive devoted attention. “With this whole story I just hear the shrill shriek of axes being ground,” said Roger Alton, executive editor at The Times. As editor of The Independent in 2009—after ten years at The Observer, which he left acrimoniously—he felt the story was old news. “Everyone has an agenda. The New York Times certainly has an agenda, after Murdoch’s very forceful attempt to rival them with The Wall Street Journal.” There was no way to condone what had happened, Alton added, but that doesn’t mean the story merits coverage today. “For me this is stuff that happened a long time ago. People have gone to prison. Coulson’s resigned twice. It’s not as if any perceived wrongdoing hasn’t been sufficiently addressed. For me it’s roughly on a par with parking in a residents’ parking bay in terms of interest.”

According to sources inside News International, the New York Times report and ensuing developments have caused a new approach at the company’s properties. “It became something that NI papers did report, but very, very straight,” says one well-placed employee. “The papers would never focus on whether Wade and Coulson had anything to do with it, or committed perjury. It’s the drones at the coalface.

“There is a real drive to try and widen it,” the same person adds. “Not just because it suits the corporate agenda—it’s also because every single other tabloid’s been doing it. There’s a desire to spread the shit as widely around Fleet Street as it’s possible to do.”

But the balancing act is a fine one. While trying to widen the circle of blame, News International has had to acknowledge that there are certain kinds of denial that simply won’t convince anyone anymore—and, more importantly, wouldn’t stand up in court.

The Water Rises

In early April, police made their first arrests in the case in five years: Ian Edmondson, the former news editor, and chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, who’s been on a knife’s edge ever since an e-mail containing records of hacked messages with the subject line “transcripts for Neville” emerged in 2009. Days after the arrests, with a series of lawsuits looming, the company finally took a step it had been agonizing over for months, and issued a lawyerly statement admitting some failings. The company said it would approach “some civil litigants with an unreserved apology and an admission of liability in cases meeting specific criteria,” conceded collective “genuine regret,” and promised compensation to some victims.

It was a stunning reversal, even if it was just as notable for the concessions it did not make. It blamed no specific individuals for the management failings that led to the hacking. And, crucially, it limited the sphere of the admission to 2004-2006, while Coulson was editing the newspaper.

The reasons for these limitations are plain. In the run-up to that qualified acknowledgement of guilt, one person with knowledge of the discussions inside News International explained, there was one crucial impediment to its release. “The key problem is that it’s got to come from Rebekah,” the person said, speaking before the statement appeared. “Anything she does that admits guilt on behalf of the company, it brings the tidal wave closer to her door.”

Nine years after her ebullient Press Awards boycott, Brooks is said to be in a less confident mood. With her attention absorbed by a crisis that won’t go away, senior News International employees say Brooks’s decision-making has become increasingly erratic. Despite the newly offered settlements, some litigants have insisted they intend to hold her personally accountable in court. “Rebekah is scared,” says the person with knowledge of News International’s discussions.

Just days before the statement, and in the strangest of circumstances, a named former editor, Paul McMullan, tied Brooks to the practice personally—by confiding in the actor Hugh Grant that Brooks would have had to know about the hacking, little realizing that Grant was wearing a concealed recording device and would provide a transcript to the New Statesman. Police are said to be questioning her; if that tidal wave hasn’t quite swept into Brooks’s office yet, the surge is at the very least seeping under the door.

But as the water rises, attention remains uneven. The day after the statement’s Friday afternoon release, the Independent and Guardian covered the story in depth, with 6,722 words between them; the remaining six newspapers managed a cumulative total of 4,187. Even now, such continued lack of coverage could staunch chances for reform or broader consequences. “We’ve heard talk before of last chance saloons, of warnings that this is your ninth life,” said Simon Jenkins. “What tends to happen is that the press rides out a bout of hostility, things calm down a bit, the Press Complaints Commission issues a few anodyne remarks. And when all that’s happened, we all just sail gaily along.”

Indeed, the flagrant attitude that characterized so much of what went on at the News of the World has disappeared, but reporters across Fleet Street say that such practices are not wholly extinguished; now, where they do continue, they are mostly carried out by trusted freelancers who are not questioned closely about their stories’ sourcing, or just what their claimed expenses purchased.

There are worries for News Corporation besides the ongoing criminal investigation into the News of the World. If a large number of the thousands said to have been hacked sue, and considering that just one settlement cost the company £700,000, Rupert Murdoch’s empire could be facing enormous liabilities and legal fees far beyond the reported £20 million it has set aside for settlements. If clear evidence emerges of extensive phone hacking at other publications through the reporting of those who do retain an interest in uncovering it, the cost to the credibility of the British press, already battered by its silence, could be just as severe.

Still, the dread must surely be greatest at News International. “The question of who knew and who didn’t remains entirely alive,” said Oborne. “And the consequences for people high up at NI are potentially devastating. What we could be seeing is the destruction of some of the most stellar careers on Fleet Street.”

Just hours after the arrests of Edmondson and Thurlbeck, the News of the World took its place at the annual Press Awards once more, carefully placed across the room from The Guardian. In spite of the crisis, which went entirely unmentioned, it won four big awards—including reporter of the year, for that man Mahzer Mahmood, and scoop of the year, for a story of his on cricket-match fixing.

As in 2002, Brooks was somewhere else—but for very different reasons. As Mahmood’s editor picked up the trophies on his behalf, he told the assembled journalists: “This is the greatest newspaper in the world.” News of the World staffers applauded furiously. In the rest of the room, though, there was something very close to silence.

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Archie Bland is the foreign editor of The Independent.