07.05.11

Murdoch Scandal’s Appalling Turn

Did an investigator working for News of the World hack into the phone of a teenage murder victim? If so, it would have happened under the watch of a Rupert Murdoch favorite.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch can be a loyal boss to favored lieutenants. And few have been more favored than Rebekah Brooks. The 43-year-old has risen at dazzling speed through the Murdoch editorial hierarchy, editing two of his national papers before her appointment in 2009 as chief executive of his U.K. operation, News International. Famous for her charm (as well as a head of flaming-red hair), Brooks is said to be a close Murdoch family friend as well as a trusted subordinate.

But loyalty must have its limits. Over the past five years, News International has battled to contain a phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, its muckraking Sunday tabloid, and Murdoch enemies have yearned to find clear evidence implicating Brooks. Now they smell blood. According to allegations in today’s press, a private investigator working for the paper tapped into the cellphone of 13-year-old murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler after her abduction back in 2002. The paper’s editor at the time: Rebekah Brooks.

To date, Murdoch has resolutely stood by his favorite, but a shocked public will want to see heads roll. Memories of the Dowler case are still fresh. Only last month was her killer finally convicted after a trial covered in harrowing detail by the media. What’s now alleged is that Dowler’s voicemail was illegally accessed by the News of the World in the days after she vanished. Worse, some messages were allegedly deleted by hackers to make space for more, encouraging her family in the false hope that Dowler might still be alive and checking her mail.

Murdoch staffers found guilty of involvement can expect no sympathy. So far, the list of hacking victims has been dominated by celebrities, including top footballers and actors, among them Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller. Gossip-hungry readers might deplore the invasion of privacy but still feel that a little intrusion is the price of wealth and fame—wrong but not wicked. By contrast, the Dowlers are ordinary members of the public, grieving the loss of their child. In the words of Alastair Campbell, director of communications at Downing Street under Tony Blair: “So far the newspapers have managed to make this as much about celebrities as the actual crime—I think this takes it to a completely different level.”

Small wonder that politicians have lined up to broadcast their condemnation. Labour leader Ed Miliband urged Brooks to “examine her conscience” and “consider her position.” And old allies are busily distancing themselves. Prime Minister David Cameron (he and Brooks are friends, and she lives near his country house) has made plain his dismay. If the allegation was true, he told reporters, it was “a truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation.”

Can Brooks survive? The latest allegation means she can no longer depend on her old excuse that any hacking happened after she left the editor’s chair. And hers would not be the first high-profile scalp. Earlier this year Cameron’s director of communications, Andy Coulson, Brooks’ successor as editor of the News of the World, resigned claiming that the publicity over continuing police investigations made it impossible to continue. Private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, apparently also implicated in targeting the Dowlers, and the paper’s onetime royal correspondent Clive Goodman, have both served jail terms.

For Murdoch, who is at pains to stress his willingness to cooperate with the police inquiry and ensure that wrongdoers are punished, Brooks’ presence at the head of the paper’s parent company is at least embarrassing. Already he faces the prospect of lengthy litigation and a potentially vast bill to compensate victims. But for the moment, Brooks shows no sign of stepping down. In a message to News International staffers, she insisted that it was “inconceivable” that she could have known of the hacking and she was determined “to lead the company to ensure that we do the right thing.” If her boss stays loyal to her.