Rupert Murdoch Tabloid Scandal: Fleet Street's Worst Blunders

From lies about Angelina and Big Macs for hunger strikers, a look at British journalism's darkest days.

Martin Cleaver / AP Photo

Martin Cleaver / AP Photo

After 168 years in print, News of the World is closing its doors. It takes a massive scandal to shutter a Fleet Street tabloid, where competition for sensational scoops sometimes trumps accuracy and journalistic ethics. The Daily Beast rounded up some of the red tops' infamous scandals.

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Hillsborough Stadium

British football fans have a nasty reputation, but The Sun made some truly horrendous allegations in a hazily sourced 1989 article. Four days after Liverpool’s Hillsborough Stadium collapsed, crushing 96 spectators to death, the paper ran a front-page article alleging that survivors had robbed the dead, urinated on rescue workers, and beat doctors administering CPR. (An inquiry later found fans responded quicker than the emergency services.) Copies of The Sun were burned in the streets, and some vendors still refuse to sell the Murdoch-owned paper. As late as 2006, lawyers for The Sun asked to have a libel case moved out of Liverpool because they feared they wouldn’t be able to get a fair trial in the city. 

Martin Cleaver / AP Photo

Benji the Binman

Benjamin Pell, better known as “Benji the Binman,” made his name and his living off Fleet Street papers willing to do anything for a scoop. He was notorious for digging through garbage for incriminating documents and selling them to tabloids. After Princess Diana’s death, he staked out the office of Elton John’s agent, hoping to finding something about the singer’s friendship with Diana. Instead he found receipts for luxury items, including flowers, which he sold to the Mirror, and for which he was sued by John. His relationship with the papers wasn’t always friendly. In 2003, he won £120,000 from the Sunday Express after the paper claimed Pell had leaked a secret list of soldiers involved in Northern Ireland's 1972 Bloody Sunday killings. 

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Princess Diana

Princess Diana is the poster child for tabloid excess. By the mid-'90s, paparazzi hounded her constantly. Shortly after the Mirror ran pictures of her vacationing with Dodi Fayed, paparazzi on motorcycles chased the couple into a tunnel, where they had their fatal accident. "If the paparazzi hadn’t been following her, the car wouldn’t have been speeding, and, you know, the accident may never have happened,” said then-News of the World editor Phil Hall.

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The Fake Sheik

Mazher Mahmood was investigations editor for News of the World. His method of investigation typically involved impersonating someone—often a member of the Saudi royal family—and getting his subjects to say incriminating things. He got Sophie Wessex to call Cherie Blair “horrid” and Gordon Brown’s budget “a load of pap.” Sometimes his stings resulted in criminal prosecutions, as when he tricked actor John Alford into offering him cocaine. Other times, his cases collapsed under the scrutiny of law, as when he claimed to have uncovered a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham. 

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Prince Charles’ Biography

It wasn’t a scandal outside the office, but it gives you an idea of what it takes to succeed at the red tops. In 1994, Piers Morgan, then editor of News of the World, asked Rebekah Wade, then a News of the World reporter and now, as Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, to dress as a cleaner and hide in a lavatory for two hours. Her mission: to steal a copy of the Sunday Times’ exclusive excerpt of Jonathan Dimbleby’s Prince Charles biography. “Theft isn’t journalism, Morgan—you bastard!” Morgan recalls Times editor John Witherow screaming. 

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Jonathan Rees

Glenn Mulcaire wasn’t the only shady private investigator on News of the World’s payroll. Beginning in the 1990s, News of the World, as well as the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror, solicited the talents of Jonathan Rees. According to The Guardian, Rees is a Freemason who set up a network of corrupt Masonic police, customs officials, taxmen, and bank staff to get access to private information on high-ranking public figures. He also got information through more traditional methods, such as commissioning burglaries or, in one case, hacking into the computer of a British intelligence officer. In 1999, after several years of earning a six-figure salary from News of the World, Rees was arrested in a plot to plant cocaine on a client’s wife. 

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Libel

Libel suits are part of a tabloid’s cost of doing business. News of the World had to pay Justin Timberlake after admitting its claim that he’d had an affair with a model while dating Cameron Diaz was false. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie also got a payout from News of the World after the paper alleged they were about to split.

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Hunger Strike

Breezy fact checking often lands the British tabloids in trouble. In 2009, both The Sun and The Daily Mail had to pay almost £80,000 to a Tamil activist they claimed had been sneaking hamburgers during his hunger strike. Parameswaran Subramanyam, a Tamil refugee, went on a 23-day hunger strike in Parliament Square, stopping only when David Miliband wrote him a letter explaining the government’s efforts to bring about a ceasefire on the island nation. He was a hero back home, until the tabloids ran a story that said he’d been sneaking Big Macs—"Hunger Striker Was Lovin' It" was The Sun’s headline. Both papers apologized for the false reports. 

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Max Mosley

In 2008 Formula One racing president Max Mosley successfully sued News of the World for $120,000 in damages for claiming he participated in a Nazi-themed sadomasochistic orgy. Specifically, he claimed his privacy had been invaded and that the orgy wasn’t Nazi themed. News of the World had secretly recorded Mosley’s rendezvous with four prostitutes in a London apartment. News of the World editor Colin Myler stood by his publication: “It is not for the rich and the famous, the powerful and the influential, to dictate the news agenda, just because they have the money and the means to gag a free press,” Myler said. “That is why the News of the World will remain committed to fighting for its readers’ right to know.”