02.10.11

The U.K. Phone-Hacking Bungle

Bugging by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid even reached a former deputy prime minister. Clive Irving on how Scotland Yard investigators messed up—and the wider ethical concerns.

In London the firestorm over telephones being bugged by reporters from Rupert Murdoch’s saucy tabloid, the News of the World, just escalated. This is becoming one of those scandals where the more the perpetrators want to bottle it up the more it won’t stay bottled.

Wednesday night Scotland Yard, which was put in charge of investigating the case, was forced to admit that the paper had targeted the phones of many more people than it first thought— including a former deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. In fact, Scotland Yard itself is becoming as much a part of the story as the News of the World.

The News of the World hacking raises wider concerns than just the ethics of tabloid journalism and the complicity of executives at Murdoch’s papers.

Two previous inquiries by the Yard were suspiciously casual, and in view of what has since emerged were more like white washes than investigations.

The latest investigation is led by a feisty woman, deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers, who seems determined to clear up the mess left by her male predecessors—no matter who gets embarrassed in the process.

Wednesday night she sent out an email to people whom she now suspects had been targets—as many as 20 of them. (Previously the Yard had put the number at 10 or 12). She even said that some public figures had been misled by the Yard when seeking assurance they had not been bugged.

The case of John Prescott is particularly poignant.

This larger-than-life rumbustious politician was Tony Blair’s essential lifeline to the working class roots of the New Labour party. Blair himself had a famously tin ear for the old-time grass roots faction. Prescott flaunted the perks of office, being dubbed “Two Jags Prescott” because he owned two Jaguar luxury sedans. And in 2006 he admitted to having an affair with one of his secretaries.

The new evidence turned up by the Yard apparently shows that Prescott’s phone was hacked in the month that he confessed to this affair.

Politicians I have spoken to here in London now believe that the News of the World hacking raises wider concerns than just the ethics of tabloid journalism and the complicity of executives at Murdoch’s papers.

First, there is the issue of Scotland Yard’s serial bungling—or, worse, of its self-restraint for fear of annoying a powerful media baron. And second there is the issue of how secure the phone conversations of senior ministers are. Tabloid reporters are not particularly regarded as masters of technology. If they can bug the mighty so easily, what about the real pros working for foreign governments or terrorist groups?

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.