12.16.11

British Newspapers Circle the Wagons

As the inquiry into Britain’s newspapers hears more unsettling evidence about the invasion of privacy, James Murdoch denies reading a key incriminating email.

Editors and executives from Britain’s national newspapers began a summit meeting yesterday to review the mess that the voicemail-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News International has landed them in. All the outward evidence suggests it was an exceptionally grim occasion. 

Day after day a public inquiry into the press has been piling on the pain for these people, with witnesses seizing the chance to tell their stories of alleged press abuse, violations of privacy, dishonesty, and downright lies. For an industry used to a large measure of control over the flow of information to the British public, this has been a stunning and humiliating experience. 

All of the mass-circulation papers are being criticized, but there is a special circle of hell here for the Murdoch press, and a chain of witnesses this week, combined with other new revelations, have contrived to make the already dire position of James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and possible heir, even worse.

The testimony yesterday of one witness, a former Murdoch reporter named Daniel Sanderson, touched on an almost unimaginable invasion of privacy. Sanderson, a former reporter for News of the World, testified that as a junior reporter he received the byline for a story that published the private dairies of Kate McCann, mother of the missing toddler Madeleine McCann, who disappeared during a family vacation in 2007. McCann had previously testified before the inquiry, saying the publication of her dairies left her feeling “violated.”

Sanderson, a junior reporter at the time, said he knew the diary was a “private document” but that at the time it was “being publicly circulated around Portugal. What the newspapers planned to do with the diary once we were in possession of that I didn’t know at the time.” Sanderson said that former News of the World news editor Ian Edmondson approved an £18,000 payment to a Portuguese journalist for the McCann diaries.

“As I understand the News of the World did not intend to publish it,” Sanderson said. “I was told at the time that we would not be publishing the diary unless we had the express permission of the McCanns.”

Sanderson apologized to Kate McCann. Leveson asked Sanderson if he hadn’t found the document “intensely personal.” “Did you think you had any permission writing a word of it, without making sure this truly was what they wanted?” Leveson queried.

“Seeking their permission was not in my sphere of responsibility,” Sanderson replied. 

It was this culture of journalism that took place while James Murdoch was in charge. This week’s testimony has pushed James closer to the precipice. Most notably, a damning email was sent to James in 2008, and his best defense is that he didn’t read it because it was the weekend and when he accessed it on his Blackberry the key passages were too far down to scroll. It brings to mind the schoolchild’s excuse: “The dog ate my homework.” 

One measure of mood of the industry as a whole was the newspapers’ reaction to new evidence about one of the most sensational aspects of the scandal: the hacking of the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler back in 2002. 

When this story broke in The Guardian last July, it shocked not only Britain but the world, and the most shocking aspect of all was the allegation that someone employed by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World had actually deleted the dead girl’s voicemail messages, thereby raising her family’s hopes that she was still alive. 

The new evidence, though it confirms that the paper hacked the phone, casts doubt on whether they were actually responsible for deleting the messages. Police now say that they have no evidence that the newspaper was to blame, though exactly what caused the deletions remains unclear. 

Many mass-circulation papers—and Murdoch’s Times of London—jumped on this as proof that the whole press scandal was founded on a lie, a piece of bad if not dishonest journalism by their nemesis paper, The Guardian. News of the World had been closed down, and the corrosive Leveson inquiry into press standards had been established on the basis, it was suggested, of a falsehood. 

This idea of the press as victim was neatly skewered on BBC television by Anne Diamond, a former presenter from another channel who had earlier told the inquiry of her own abusive treatment by the tabloids. Confronted by a fulminating former News of the World journalist, Jules Stenson, she simply swept aside the issue of the deletions and declared: “Now you know how it feels.”

All the evidence suggests that the newspapers, while they may indeed be feeling what it is like to be on the wrong end of the public hatred they have so merrily turned on others for many years, are finding it hard to learn the lessons. 

The outcome of their summit is not yet known, but if it includes a collective acknowledgment of guilt and effective measures to put things right that will be a surprise. Much more likely, all history suggests, is that they are preparing some minimal gestures of reform while plotting a terrible revenge on all those, including Diamond, the actor Hugh Grant, The Guardian, and others, who have put them in the dock. 

For James Murdoch, though, the woes of the industry, or even of the British papers that are owned by the family firm, are nothing compared to his own never-ending humiliation.

For James Murdoch, though, the woes of the industry, or even of the British papers that are owned by the family firm, are nothing compared to his own never-ending humiliation. 

The crucial mistake he made is a simple one. In 2008, soon after moving to London to take charge there, he authorized a payment of around £500,000 to a soccer official whose phone had been hacked. This was at least 10 and possibly 50 times the going rate for breach-of-privacy settlements in the British courts, so the question why he would pay so much naturally arises. 

James’s best answer, after many rounds of official questioning in person and on paper, is that he acted without knowing the full details, which were that this was the sum required to buy the silence of the soccer official, whose lawyers had proof that several News of the World journalists were involved in illegal voicemail hacking.  

Alas for James, the two men advising him at the time, former legal chief Tom Crone and former News of the World editor Colin Myler, have repeatedly said—most recently at the inquiry this week—that they told him the whole story. In other words, they say he knew of criminal wrongdoing at one of his papers in 2008, did nothing about it then, and stood by while his company assured the public everything was fine for a further two and a half years. 

Here’s where James’s dog-ate-my-homework excuse comes in. This week it emerged that James was sent at the time an email that contained the observations that the company was in a “nightmare scenario” and that hacking was “rife” at the News of the World. James issued the following statement in response: “I was sent the email on a Saturday when I was not in the office. I replied two minutes later accepting a meeting and did not read the full email chain. As I have always said, I was not aware of evidence of widespread wrongdoing or the need for further investigation.”

Crone says that in a meeting in 2008 he held up the key evidence to James for him to look at, and Myler, who was at the same meeting says he doesn’t remember that but sees no reason to doubt it. James says no. 

It is indignity piled on indignity. In the next couple of months the parliamentary committee that interrogated James is going to report. The best that can be said of his position is that he might just have persuaded them he is a mug rather than a crook. Not what is expected of the one-time heir apparent to the News Corp. empire.

Meredith Bennett-Smith contributed reporting to this article.