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07.07.11

News Scandal’s Next Victims?

With the News of the World closing, William Underhill reports on the scandal’s larger implications for the British establishment.

As a paper, it thrived on scandal, and it’s scandal that proved its final undoing. Faced by allegations that employees hacked into thousands of mobile phones, the management of the News of the World abruptly decided today that Britain’s most popular Sunday tabloid must close, ending a 168-year history. Once a commercial cash cow, the paper had become a political embarrassment. A last edition will appear this weekend. According to a statement from James Murdoch, son of media mogul Rupert and chairman of the paper’s parent company: “The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account but it failed when it came to itself.” Many of the staff were said to have wept on hearing the announcement.

Small comfort, but they are unlikely to be the scandal’s last victims. It’s not only the journalists of Murdoch’s News International—a British subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—whose behavior has come under aggressive scrutiny in recent days. By the time police investigations and two promised public inquiries are complete, plenty of reputations look sure to be sullied, with awkward  questions to be answered by some key players in the British establishment who appear to have been either cowed by the Murdoch press or too intimate with its staff.

Start at the top with David Cameron.  As his opponents have been quick to point out, the prime minister employed former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his director of communications when his name was already tainted. Coulson had resigned from the paper after its royal correspondent was jailed in 2007 for intercepting the phone messages of royal aides.  Earlier this year Coulson quit his job in Downing Street as fresh allegations emerged.  At the very least, Cameron’s choice for a key role in his entourage now looks unwise: to Labour leader Ed Miliband, speaking yesterday in Parliament, it was “a catastrophic error of judgment.”

Besides, the prime minister has exposed himself to charges of mixing politics with personal friendship through his ties to senior figures in the Murdoch empire. In particular, attention has focused on Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, who is a neighbor of the Camerons in the Oxfordshire countryside and is said to go riding with the prime minister.

Fueling the criticism, it’s known that Cameron attended a dinner party at Christmas hosted by Brooks, where guests included James Murdoch.  At the time, News Corp. was proposing the politically contentious takeover of British Sky Broadcasting. Accurate or not, the perception of a too-close relationship will dent the prime minister’s image as an assured political operator.

The police, too, look dangerously vulnerable. Reports today say some officers may have received up to $48,000 in illegal payments from the News of the World in return for information. What’s more, it’s clear that much of the evidence now coming to light—police are examining 10,000 documents—was already available at the time of an earlier investigation in 2006. Did the incriminating facts fail to emerge sooner because of links between detectives and journalists at News International?  Former home secretary Alan Johnson yesterday accused police of "a certain lethargy” in pursuing their investigation. An inquiry launched into the handling of the case should make clear whether that lethargy amounted to deliberate neglect.

Accurate or not, the perception of a too-close relationship will dent the prime minister’s image as an assured political operator.

Critics have been no more charitable about the performance of the media’s  official watchdog. As part of a wider system of industry self-regulation, the Press Complaints Commission is supposed to check the worst excesses of Britain’s famously intrusive tabloids. But its investigation of the phone-hacking allegations has been derided as “cursory and complacent” by The Guardian, the paper that’s done most to uncover wrongdoing at News International. If the demise of the News of the World marks a turning point in the history of the British press, it won’t be thanks to the British establishment.