One of the biggest scandals to engulf the British press since princess Diana’s death began with a trivial bit of gossip about her eldest son. In late 2005, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid News of the World ran a story about Prince William’s plans to meet with Tom Bradby, a well-known television reporter and trusted confidant of the prince’s. Bradby was supposed to help William patch together a film from footage William had collected during his gap year, between high school and university, when he camped in a hammock in the jungles of Belize and lived on army rations. Only four people—Bradby, William, and two royal aides—were supposed to know about the plan, so seeing it splashed across News of the World’s pages raised some troubling questions.

The day after the story appeared, Bradby turned up at the Prince of Wales’s palace, portable editing gear tucked under his arm, and was ushered into William’s private chambers. The two discussed the leak and how it might have happened. Bradby shared his suspicions, based on some “jaw-dropping” things he had learned while working as a royal reporter a few years earlier. “At the time,” he recalls, “I had heard that people were regularly breaking into voicemails. The practice was colossally widespread, and I suggested that might be what was going on.”

After the meeting, the royal family enlisted a retired British spy to investigate Bradby’s hunch, then called in Scotland Yard, which assigned an antiterrorism team to the case. Months later, in August 2006, police arrested Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal editor, and a private investigator named Glenn “Trigger” Mulcaire. The pair was accused of hacking into the voicemail of top royal aides more than six hundred times. Mulcaire, who had worked at the paper since 1997 and was paid at least $200,000 a year, was also suspected of eavesdropping on messages intended for a number of politicians and celebrities, among them former Home Secretary David Blunkett and supermodel Elle MacPherson.

Those revelations quickly mushroomed into a national scandal that would stretch over months and stir a deep reservoir of public outrage over the excesses of the tabloids. It also rekindled debate over an issue that has vexed Britain for decades—how to balance privacy rights against press freedom. Large swaths of the public have begun to feel that something needs to be done to keep the tabloids from trampling on private lives, and some new measures are already in the works. Meanwhile, many journalists fear that efforts to rein in gossip mongering could hamper legitimate reporting on public figures. “There are genuine abuses going on, and it is making things more difficult for the rest of us,” says David Leigh, the Guardian’s editor for investigations. “The tabloids are threatening to poison the well for all journalists.”

Shortly after Goodman’s arrest, Britain’s Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, whose job it is to protect private information, heaped more shame on the tabloids by publishing a follow-up to a May report suggesting that journalists were “driving the illegal trade in confidential personal information.” It focused largely on a corrupt private detective who bribed officials to get bank records, medical files, and other information. His client roster consisted almost entirely of reporters.

In fact, at least 305 journalists from thirty-one publications had hired him more than thirteen thousand times over a three-year period. Payments for these services stacked up to around $2 million. The worst offender was the Daily Mail, where fifty-eight reporters had enlisted his services, but most major British tabloids were on the list, along with a few broadsheets and magazines. Mick Gorrill, the head of enforcement in Thomas’s office, says the case may be just the beginning. “We believe these tactics are extremely widespread,” he told me.

Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications.