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.