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.