For Tom Watson, revenge was sweet. As a British Labour M.P., he’d suffered badly at the hands of the Murdoch family’s News International empire. Now it was payback time. Under interrogation by a parliamentary committee, James Murdoch—the company chairman and heir apparent of his father, Rupert—had denied knowledge of the fact that illicit phone hacking was widespread among journalists at the family’s News of the World tabloid. The testimony, which was watched by a few million viewers last month, prompted Watson to speculate aloud that the 39-year-old must be “the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.”
A tad overstated perhaps, but the jibe had a certain aptness. The hacking scandal boasts a cast of characters suitable for the hammiest of gangster flicks: a feuding family of vast wealth and power; an aging patriarch with a forceful, young third wife; politicians and police officers of dubious integrity; and a pack of stop-at-nothing journalists with a dangerously charming editor at their head. Pitted against them: an investigative reporter and a handful of M.P.s bent on exposing malpractice that has marred the lives of thousands of Britons, from soldiers’ widows and parents of missing children to the royal family itself.
A slew of government and police inquiries are now examining different aspects of the scandal, producing yet more evidence of questionable conduct at the heart of British democracy—and often involving those charged with its defense. As the inquiry drags on, new and tawdry details are surfacing each day. For the moment, all that’s clear is that the principal villains have seen their future role in the plot transformed. “The menacing charm that the Murdochs exerted over a generation of British politicians has been destroyed for ever,” says Tim Luckhurst, professor of journalism at the University of Kent.
Just a few months ago, the Murdochs could still command the attention—albeit sometimes a resentful attention—of Britain’s political elite. After all, this was a family that controlled more than 30 percent of the British press and claimed the power to decide elections. (The legendary headline in the Murdochs’ bestselling tabloid The Sun after the Conservatives’ 1992 election victory: “It’s the Sun wot won it”). Small wonder that not only Prime Minister David Cameron but also the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband turned out for the News International summer party at a swanky Kensington restaurant.
For a long time, Murdoch’s influence showed no sign of waning. News International was pushing to acquire a controlling stake in BSkyB, the country’s most profitable broadcaster, and the government seemed willing to overlook antitrust concerns. With power, naturally, came arrogance. Rebekah Brooks, the editor of News of the World—the country’s top-selling Sunday paper—disdained to appear before a parliamentary committee looking into the conduct of the press.
That was before the disclosure by The Guardian that a private investigator working for News of the World had purportedly tapped into the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, and deleted messages—leading the family to believe the girl was still alive. (In a nice twist to the storyline, whether this transgression happened is now uncertain—new details have emerged that the messages may have expired on their own.) An outraged public demanded redress. Allegations that phone hacking was common practice at News of the World—a suspicion long pursued by investigative reporter Nick Davies from The Guardian—were reexamined, and police inquiries reopened.
Few in the British political and power classes have remained untainted as the story has unfolded. An earlier police review of the hacking evidence was found to be inadequate. Officers were accused of taking money from the press in exchange for information. Meanwhile, politicians who had stayed silent for decades found the courage to speak out against the Murdochs. In the words of Conservative M.P. Zac Goldsmith, News International “had systematically corrupted our police and gelded Parliament.” A chastened Rupert Murdoch, the empire’s 80-year-old boss, appearing before a parliamentary inquiry, declared it was “the most humble day of his life.”
For many the most troubling revelation is that links between politicians and the Murdochs appeared to go beyond simple political expedience. Former Labour premier Tony Blair, it emerged, had stood as godfather to the daughters of Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng Murdoch at a ceremony beside the Red Sea, a fact kept secret from the press. Both former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and his Conservative successor David Cameron had attended the wedding of Rebekah Brooks. For good measure, Cameron and Brooks, neighbors in the Oxfordshire countryside, went horse-riding together.
Fresh storylines continue to emerge as witnesses line up to testify before the various inquiries into the hacking scandal, and a big courtroom denouement could follow. More than a dozen journalists from the now-defunct News of the World, including Brooks, have been arrested and could face trial. When a protester threw a foam pie at Rupert Murdoch as the tycoon attended hearings on the hacking this past summer, the damage was superficial and soon wiped away. It will be a long while before the British establishment clears the last of the egg from its face.