“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.”