the audit

Murdoch’s Hacking Scandal Gets Much Worse

The Guardian shows News Corporation at an all-time low (and that's saying something)
July 5, 2011

Sometimes you wonder if Rupert Murdoch’s empire could get any viler, and then, sure as the sun will rise in the morning and The Sun will have boobies on page three (NSFW), it always does.

Today, it’s not a false-propaganda-spouting Fox News talking head, it’s the News of the World hacking scandal, which just got several orders of magnitude worse for Murdoch’s News Corporation.

That all the affected so far in the hacking scandal are celebrities has been one of the key problems in getting people interested in the fact that people on Murdoch’s payroll systematically violated the privacy of thousands of people. The tabloid media culture, Murdoch’s wheelhouse, has turned celebrities into nonpeople undeserving of basic dignity and decency, and anyone who buys rags like the News of the World (or, say, US or Star, or who watches TMZ) is complicit in this. On some level, tabloid readers—and Murdoch built his global media empire on their legions— understand this and rationalize it by calling it a tradeoff for being rich and famous. Translated to this scandal, it’s something like “Yes, it’s skeevy that Murdoch’s people hacked into people’s phones, but Sienna Miller and Prince William are rich public figures, not regular folks.”

But Milly Dowler—now that’s a different story.

Dowler, a thirteen-year-old from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, went missing in the spring of 2002 on her way home from school. Six months later she was found murdered, dumped naked in the woods.

In the meantime, the Guardian reports, the News of the World had paid its crooked private investigators to hack into Milly’s cellphone and listen to her voicemails:

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As her friends and parents called and left messages imploring Milly to get in touch with them, the News of the World was listening and recording their every private word.

Oh, it gets worse. That’s merely abhorrent and illegal. This, on the other hand, is downright evil:

But the journalists at the News of the World then encountered a problem. Milly’s voicemail box filled up and would accept no more messages. Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened – and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.

That has got the attention of everyone, it seems. The Guardian today rounds up searing quotes from prominent politicians, including prime minister David Cameron, the guy who brought Andy Coulson, deputy editor of the News of the World during all this (and later top editor when the hacking went exponential), into 10 Downing Street as his top flack, despite knowing he had presided over a serious hacking scandal. Here’s Cameron today:

On the … really appalling allegations about the telephone of Milly Dowler, if they are true this is a truly dreadful act in a truly dreadful situation. What I’ve read in the papers is quite, quite, shocking, that someone could do this actually knowing that the police were trying to find this person and trying to find out what had happened – and we all now know the tragedy that took place.

The Guardian and Nick Davies have dominated the News Corporation hacking scandal story, and that’s all the more important since most of the rest of the British press, plus its police, press boards, and politicians (in other words, most of its power structure), has tried to cover it up, as Archie Bland wrote for us in the magazine.

It’s awfully lonely out on a story that nobody else is touching, particularly when it’s explosive like this one and you’ve been almost alone on it for several years now. That’s compounded by the fact that for its efforts, the The Guardian has been fought and smeared by the most powerful media corporation in the world, which happens to be run by Rupert Murdoch, the man who, despite being a foreigner, appears to this casual observer across the pond to have the most enduring power of anyone in the UK.

That’s a long way of saying this hacking scandal doesn’t turn into what it has without the dogged efforts of Davies and The Guardian. Can we give them some sort of honorary overseas Pulitzer?

Here in the States, The New York Times, which has swooped in to do some excellent reporting on this scandal, gives the story some run on A9, but underplays the News Corporation angle. Bloomberg does better with a longish story headlined “News Corp. Under Fire for ’Appalling’ Phone-Hack Claims.” The Associated Press gives it 1,100 words. Ford Motor Company pulled all its ads from the News of the World, and other companies are considering joining them.

Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which has all but ignored the scandal, gives it just 349 words of wire copy at the bottom of A11. The headline:

U.K. Tabloid Accused of Hacking Girl’s Phone

Come on, guys.

The Guardian‘s Roy Greenslade has the roundup on how the rest of the British press covered it. This is a story it can no longer ignore: It’s page one news in The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, The Daily Mail, and even in Murdoch’s Times of London. Murdoch’s Sun on the other hand?

Even the News of the World’s sister paper was forced to cover the story, but in mealy-mouthed fashion with just 95 words under the heading “Murdered Milly’s phone ‘got hacked‘”.

And TV:

The Milly Dowler phone-hacking story dominated news broadcasting coverage last night and again this morning. The BBC, ITN and, it should be noted, Sky News, gave the story full measure.

The play this story is finally getting in the UK means the end for Murdoch lieutenant Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World in 2002 when it hacked Milly’s phone and who is now CEO of his News International division. The Guardian‘s Nick Davies, naturally, is on that story too:

The Guardian has seen invoices submitted by (phone hacker Steve) Whittamore which explicitly record apparently illegal acts. One of Brooks’s assistant editors, Paul McMullan, told the Guardian last year that he personally had commissioned several hundred acts that could be regarded as unlawful and that senior editors were aware of this.

Scotland Yard will want to establish whether, as an editor, Brooks approved the use of her budget for illegal ends; and whether she knowingly published stories that had been obtained by unlawful means. In addition, she is one of the 23 journalists named in Whittamore’s records, allegedly for commissioning access to confidential data from a mobile phone company. Police will want to know whether this happened and, if so, whether it was lawful.

This is from Davies’s original scoop on the Milly Dowler hacking:

The paper made little effort to conceal the hacking from its readers. On 14 April 2002 it published a story about a woman allegedly pretending to be Milly Dowler who had applied for a job with a recruitment agency: “It is thought the hoaxer even gave the agency Milly’s real mobile number … the agency used the number to contact Milly when a job vacancy arose and left a message on her voicemail … it was on March 27, six days after Milly went missing, that the employment agency appears to have phoned her mobile.”

It also ought to increase the scrutiny of News executives up the chain. Brooks and Coulson, of course, but how about Les Hinton, stonewalling chief executive of Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal and on up? Let’s hope News Corp.’s strategy of buying its way out of a full accounting fails.

Of course, Milly Dowler wasn’t the only private citizen whose phone was hacked by News Corporation. You can bet there are many more such shoes to drop.

And so while this one might be hard to top, if history is any indication, one thing you can always bet on: Murdoch’s empire will always show you that you weren’t quite cynical enough about it.

Further Reading:

Murdoch’s Hacking Scandal. Two stories cover the political, police, and press angles on the News Corp. coverup

The News Corp. Coverup. Memory-impaired execs, payments to key figures, and Keystone Kops

Anybody There? Why the UK’s phone-hacking scandal met media silence

A Times Must-Read on the News Corp. Hacking Scandal

Journalism Scandal at News Corp. A peek into Murdoch’s news culture.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.