Considering that it was printed in Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, the News of the World, the article was utterly innocuous. In just a few bouncy sentences, the story claimed Prince William had pulled a knee tendon during a "kids’ kickabout" and "now medics have put him on the sick list."
That was over five years ago. The News of the World’s army of readers had probably forgotten the article even before they’d turned the page. And yet what an expensive headache that story has proved for the paper's owners, News International, revealing, as it did, the extraordinarily murky world of the "phone-hacker."
Some 50 detectives, many of them accustomed to murder and rape cases, are currently working on one of the biggest scandals ever to hit British journalism. The paper has been accused of illegally intercepting voicemails from various celebrities and public figures. Now, scores of stars, including the actress Sienna Miller and the interior designer Kelly Hoppen, are on the warpath. Along the way, it is costing the jobs and reputations of several of Britain’s most high-flying journalists.
For its part, News International has been desperate to draw a line under the affair, earmarking a reported £20 million compensation fund for the ever-growing number of litigants.
Many pundits, however—including Murdoch’s onetime editor Andrew Neil—say they believe this story will run and run.
“The only difference is the technology. I’m damn sure if we’d had mobiles when I was on the road we’d have been listening in.”
"It may cost them a lot more than they think," said Neil. "There are plenty of other people involved. They are trying to close it down with their checkbook but I don’t think they’re going to succeed."
It’s still not clear exactly when the News of the World’s veteran Royal Editor Clive Goodman first came across this revolutionary method of finding stories, but phone-hacking was to provide him with a rich fund of scoops—and he needed them. The tabloid then had over 8 million readers, and even its most senior correspondents were under constant pressure to bring in exclusives. None of these correspondents came more senior than Goodman, who, in his immaculate three-piece suits, seemed to be part of the very fabric of the News of the World’s newsroom in Wapping, East London.
At some stage before 2005, Goodman, then in his late forties, had teamed up with a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire. Mulcaire was being paid tens of thousands of pounds by the News of the World to listen to the voicemail messages of various British royals, their aides, and a handful of other big names. Mulcaire also appears to have accessed a number of Prince William’s text messages to Kate Middleton, even discovering her private nickname for him: Big Willie.
That, at least, was the initial story.
Phone-hacking may sound high-tech, but in reality was very simple. It chiefly relied on the little-known fact that most people don’t bother to change the default settings on a mobile phone. This meant that anyone who knew the default personal ID numbers could access the voicemail messages.
Looking back, it seems inevitable that Goodman was going to get caught. That's what finally happened when Goodman ran his little filler piece on Prince William’s injured knee.
Prince William was perplexed at how his undisclosed injury could have ended up in the News of the World. Then, a week later, in November 2005, Goodman ran another story on how the TV journalist Tom Bradby had lent the prince some broadcasting equipment.
Bradby recalled: "I was due to have a private meeting with William, and I was pretty surprised to find that, not only details of the meeting, but of what we were going to discuss pitched up in the News of the World the Sunday before."
"When he and I hooked up," Bradby continued, "we both looked at each other and said, 'How on earth did that get out?’ And we worked out that only he and I and two people incredibly close to him had actually known about it.
"The answer we came up with was that it must be something like breaking into mobile answering-machine messages."
The palace called in the police, and Goodman and Mulcaire were finally arrested in August 2006. At the trial five months later, prosecutors were content to identify just eight victims. Goodman and Mulcaire pleaded guilty to illegally intercepting mobile messages and were jailed for four months and six months, respectively.
The News of the World’s editor, Andy Coulson, was forced to resign. He’d known nothing about the phone-hacking, he said, but because it had occurred on his watch, was obliged to take ultimate responsibility.
The line that was peddled by News International was that Goodman was a lone "rogue reporter" acting without any authority from the newsroom executives.
But many veteran journalists were skeptical at how such a hands-on editor as Coulson would not have wanted to know precisely what Mulcaire was being paid for. Nevertheless, within a few months, Coulson had bounced back to become the Conservative Party’s press chief.
And that, after a number of fruitless inquiries by the police and the Press Complaints Commission, should have seen the story safely dead and buried—except it refused to die. The reaction on Fleet Street, as Britain’s newspapers are still collectively known, has been interesting. Although the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, a longtime critic of Rupert Murdoch, had railed against phone-hacking right from the start, there has also been a slight feeling that it was all part of the rough and tumble of tabloid life.
One retired tabloid reporter commented, "The only difference is the technology. I’m damn sure if we’d had mobiles when I was on the road we’d have been listening in. After all, we got up to every other trick in the book. And don’t go on about that public interest nonsense. We did what we did because the desk were always on our backs to get the story."
Tom Brown, a former Express news executive, said the real culprits of phone-hacking were "the rapacious results-or-else management who know damned well how sales-making headlines are achieved and editorial bullies who abuse their hire-and-fire powers to intimidate staff in an ever-tightening jobs market."
Brown goes on to paint a vivid picture of life on a tabloid, in which phone-hacking sounds like a relatively low-level misdemeanor.
"As an old foot-in-the-door man, I have asked journalists of my generation how they feel about the phone-hacking scandal and whether they can say hand-on-heart they wouldn’t have done it," says Brown. "Remember, we were the generation who bought up murderers, kidnapped witnesses, door-stepped story subjects day and night, sleeping in our cars outside their homes and, while the grief-stricken mother of a dead child made us a cup of tea, swiped every picture off her mantelpiece…"
"Some who pulled off the most lurid scoops claim they wouldn’t have. One longtime union man said, 'We’d have stopped the paper’… But the ones I really believed were those who said, "Hmmm… depends on the story…"
It was a full two years after Goodman and Mulcaire had been released from prison that The Guardian reignited the phone-hacking scandal with the spectacular claim that News of the World journalists had been involved in hacking into the phones of up to 3,000 celebrities, politicians, and sports stars. The list of alleged victims was extraordinary in its breadth and diversity, and included actress Gwyneth Paltrow, London Mayor Boris Johnson, as well as former Labour minister Tessa Jowell, celebrity cook Nigella Lawson, and the comedian Lenny Henry.
The Guardian also revealed that one phone-hacking victim, the head of the footballers’ union, Gordon Taylor, had been paid a reported £700,000 to drop his legal action. Suddenly the story was right back at the top of the news agenda.
Every month, it seemed as if News International was being hit by a fresh body-blow. The former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott was suing the Metropolitan police over how it handled the original inquiry. The House of Commons’ culture committee was accusing the News of the World of "collective amnesia," saying it was inconceivable that Goodman had acted alone.
By September 2010, The New York Times had started its own investigation, unearthing former News of the World reporter Sean Hoare, who claimed that phone-hacking was "endemic" at the paper.
This steady trickle of stories finally turned into a torrent when the News of the World handed over a tranche of emails and other papers to police. Some 50 detectives are now poring over this paperwork in the obscurely named "Operation Weeting."
Twenty-four celebrities are now actively seeking compensation, though that number could soon rise into the hundreds. Typical of these litigants is the actress Sienna Miller, who was never able to fathom how her on-off relationship with Jude Law was being played out week by week in the pages of the News of the World.
Sienna’s lawyer Mark Thomson commented: "Sienna’s claims are based on outrageous violations of her privacy. Her voicemails were persistently hacked and the information obtained was used to publish numerous intrusive articles over a period of a year. Her primary concern is to discover the whole truth and for all those responsible to be held to account."
Since the start of 2011, the scandal seems to have been growing like the Hydra, and for every story that’s been knocked down, another two have sprouted in its place. Andy Coulson, who had helped David Cameron become prime minister, had the ignominy of being forced out of his job for a second time, declaring that "when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to move on."
A further three News of the World staff—the head of news Ian Edmondson, chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, and former news editor James Weatherup—were arrested, and one more arrest is expected to follow.
And last week, News International issued an apology which was so unprecedented that Neil described it as "one of the most embarrassing apologies I’ve ever seen from a major British corporation." In its statement, News International said, "Past behaviour at the News of the World in relation to voicemail interception is a matter of genuine regret... It is now apparent that our previous inquiries failed to uncover important evidence and we acknowledge our actions were not sufficiently robust."
News International hopes that most claims will be settled for less than £100,000 each, though the final bill could easily run into the tens of millions.
It’s understood that the compensation claims will be overseen by an independent adjudicator who will assess claims according to four criteria, including showing that Mulcaire was hacking into mobile phones specifically for the News of the World, and that a story was then printed on the basis of the illicitly obtained information.
Britain’s legal firms are already licking their lips. Charlotte Harris of Mishcon de Reya, who represents the football agent Sky Andrew, said, "An admission from the News of the World is something we’ve been working toward for years now. They persisted with their 'one rogue' defense for far too long... It was clear for a very long time that the practice of phone-hacking was rife and that the News of the World should take responsibility."
The problem for News International, however, is that the ramifications of the scandal now go way beyond mere phone-hacking. The competence of Rupert Murdoch’s son and heir apparent, James Murdoch, is being called into question. And on a much broader front, the scandal may also jeopardize BSkyB’s proposed merger with News International’s parent company News Corporation.
But as the commentator Peter Preston pithily said of News International’s compensation fund and its mea culpa: "Will it work? Embraced as a strategy two years ago, it would certainly have avoided much grief... Most fiascos, as journalists know, come at the crass coverup stage. But now a huge squad of Scotland Yard diggers, their integrity at stake, are turning over stones with a will... Now assorted Commons committees have News International’s top decision-makers in their sights. So a great deal hangs on those sacks of gold."
Phone-hacking: The key players
Rupert Murdoch The 80-year-old head of News Corporation, said to be insisting on a "zero-tolerance" attitude to phone-hacking.
James Murdoch Rupert Murdoch’s son, currently No. 3 in News Corp., but under fire for not having ordered his executives to come clean.
Andy Coulson Editor of the News of the World from 2003-2007. Resigned over the phone-hacking scandal and was forced out of his next job, as David Cameron’s spin-doctor, for the same reason.
Clive Goodman The News of the World’s Royal Editor, jailed for four months in 2007 after admitting unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages.
Glenn Mulcaire Private investigator with the necessary technical skills for phone-hacking. Jailed for six months in 2007 after admitting unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages.
Ian Edmondson The News of the World’s former head of news, sacked after being linked to the phone-hacking inquiry. Recently arrested and released on bail until September.
Neville Thurlbeck The News of the World’s former chief reporter, arrested this month and also released on bail until September.
Lord Prescott Former deputy prime minister, suing the police after claiming they failed to carry out a proper investigation. Says: "The News of the World has now admitted mass criminality."
Sky Andrew Sports agent, suing the News of the World for breach of privacy.
Sienna Miller Actress, currently considering a compensation offer from the News of the World.
Kelly Hoppen Interior designer and stepmother of Sienna Miller, offered a settlement by the News of the World.
Tessa Jowell Former Olympics Minister, offered a settlement.
Bill Coles worked on the News of the World's sister paper The Sun from 1994 to 2000, and was variously The Sun's New York correspondent, political correspondent and royal reporter. His fifth novel, Simon Cowell: The Sex Factor , a satire, will be published by Legend Press (UK) on April 30.