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.