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.