The News of the World Scandal and the Intrusive British Press

Philip Delves Broughton explains how The News of the World was popular, prurient, and invasive.

Sean Dempsey / AP Photo

Like all the juiciest scandals, the one now enveloping the very highest levels of British public life—and which led on Thursday to the closing of the country’s most widely read and most profitable newspaper—keeps on coming.

In London this week, scarcely an hour passed without some new, dreadful accusation involving Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, the police, and parliament. Everyone knew British tabloids were tawdry, but not this bad.

On Monday, we learned that reporters at the News of the World had allegedly hacked into the phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old schoolgirl abducted and killed in 2002, thereby interfering with early police inquiries into her disappearance. By Tuesday, it turned out it wasn’t just schoolgirls, but terrorist victims, the war dead, and a growing list of public figures who were allegedly having their messages listened to by tabloid reporters.

Four thousand people in total had been identified as potential victims of the newspaper’s private investigators. Not to be one of them has become a sign of social insignificance.

Senior police officers, it was alleged, had repeatedly sold information to Murdoch’s reporters, a fact allegedly covered up in internal police inquiries. Some were said to have been blackmailed, threatened that their own sexual affairs would be revealed unless they cooperated with the hacks.

A climax of sorts was reached Thursday afternoon with the unexpected announcement of the closure of the News of the World. After 168 years of titillating the British public with sex scandals, its gig was up.

Over 200 people, from reporters to photographers and sales reps, gasped as they were told they would be losing their jobs. Their computers were immediately shut down, so they retired to the pub where their stunned editor, Colin Myler, stood several rounds. Myler made his name in tabloids in 1993 by publishing secretly taken pictures of Diana, Princess of Wales, working out in a gym.

“The problem is, all these decent hardworking distinguished journalists are carrying the can for the sins of the previous regime,” said David Wooding, the newspaper’s political editor, told the BBC. “I’m horrified by what happened. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong. I can’t say anything in defense of what happened in the News of the World but I must say, it was not us lot, and we are the ones who are taking the stick. I don’t think they could have done any more to cleanse the News of the World. They have taken the ultimate sanction, they have removed it from the face of the earth.”

Then on Friday, Andy Coulson, the newspaper’s former editor and former senior adviser to the prime minister, turned himself in for questioning by the police, facing the possibility of jail if convicted of authorizing the hacking and illegal payments to police officers.

The cascade of events prompted a nervous looking Prime Minister David Cameron to call a press conference in which he expressed his shock at the week’s events and his loyalty to Coulson. He also announced two inquiries, the first to examine the particular events, the second to look at the broader state of Britain’s press culture.

Cameron has devoted great energy to cozying up to Murdoch and his executives. The day after his arrival in No. 10, he was said to have welcomed Rupert Murdoch for a meeting. The mogul is said to have come in by a back door to avoid being seen.

So far, it has been all a British scandal can be, with political sleaze, sexual blackmail, and police corruption all viewed through the “cor blimey” lens of tabloid culture.

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In the midst of this are Murdoch’s son and putative heir, James Murdoch, 38, and Rebekah Brooks, 43, the chief executive of News International, the News Corp. subsidiary that holds his British newspapers. Brooks is a close friend of the prime minister. They have country homes within a mile of each other and go riding together. Her hold over powerful men is a source of perpetual fascination in the British media, which seem to view it in psycho-sexual terms. Rupert Murdoch is said to view her as a surrogate daughter. She seduces some and terrifies others, seemingly wielding her cascading Pre-Raphaelite hair and often foul mouth as a weapon.

The police are reported to be staggered at the extent of the supposed bribes accepted within its ranks. And there are rumors that James Murdoch may yet face a criminal investigation. In his email statement announcing the closure of the News of the World, Murdoch admitted making a series of wrong and misleading statements about the phone-hacking scandal. He called his actions “regrettable,” a term that reeked of lawyerly caution.

He and Brooks are pushing a “rogue reporter” explanation for the newspaper’s crimes, blaming it on a few editors and journalists at a certain time. This may yet protect them from prosecution, but it is sitting poorly with their staff. Many of the News of the World reporters called Mr. Murdoch a coward for not coming to deliver the news of their paper’s closure in person.

Instead he sent his email and dispatched Brooks, who gave a rambling, five-minute speech to the stunned newsroom about her love for the newspaper she once edited. She then disappeared with two security guards without taking questions. Accounts from reporters of the mood in the newsroom ranged from “lynch mob” to “stunned silence.”

Rupert Murdoch was attending a media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, as all this went down, but the sudden decision to shut the News of the World bore his hallmarks of ruthless speed and surprise.

Just as in 1986, when he defied striking print workers in London and moved his entire newspaper operations to Wapping overnight and never missed an issue, his startling decision reduced the British establishment to bluster.

“All they’re going to do is rebrand it,” said the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke. It turned out that earlier in the week, Murdoch’s tabloid daily, The Sun, had registered domain names for a Sunday newspaper. Even in the midst of this family and business crisis, Murdoch is already planning for a return to business as usual.

For Murdoch that means stopping the poison from one corrupt and toxic newspaper from infecting a global media empire with annual revenue of $32 billion, and assets ranging from the Fox network and The Wall Street Journal in the United States, to the Times of London and The Australian in Sydney.

William Rees-Mogg in The Times addressed the business rationale for closing the newspaper. News Corporation is trying to close the purchase of a majority stake in BSkyB, Britain’s leading satellite broadcaster. If concluded, the sale would give Rupert Murdoch an even greater stranglehold on the British media. The sale has been repeatedly reviewed by the government, and after this week will likely be delayed again.

“The NoW was a rather elderly cash cow for the business; the BSkyB purchase could greatly strengthen the ability of the Murdoch business to finance further ventures on a global scale in the face of determined competition,” wrote Rees-Mogg. “The NoW was something above a financial indulgence but it would have become an indulgence too far to allow the failings of judgment in one newspaper to block far more promising developments.” Its poison simply could not be allowed to leach into rest of Mr. Murdoch’s globe-spanning empire.

The News of the World, popularly known as the Screws, has long struck fear into public figures in Britain. It has not merely exposed their crimes and infidelities, but brutally ridiculed them. There was the Conservative cabinet minister, David Mellor, who was having an affair with a Spanish student. The killer for his reputation was that he would have sex while wearing the shirt of Chelsea, his favorite soccer team. Or Alan Clark, another Tory minister, who was reported to have had an affair with a judge’s wife.

The newspaper exposed David Beckham’s extramarital affair while he was playing for Real Madrid, by getting hold of his private text messages to his mistress. There was a seeming endless supply of dirty vicars and two-timing athletes to keep the Screws’ reporters and photographers busy.

Yet the British viewed it in schizophrenic fashion. For many, it was an essential, ribald part of British life. This was why it sold 2.66 million copies every Sunday, more than 700,000 copies more than its nearest rival. For others, it symbolized all that was most cruel, prurient, and intrusive about the Murdoch press.

John Lloyd in the Financial Times yesterday wrote: “The Decline of the English Titillator has been swift, unsentimental, and—even with all the cancers its newsroom acquired while under the Murdoch tutelage—cruel.”

The sudden sacking of so many employees who seemingly had little or nothing to do with the alleged crimes committed eight years ago seems deeply unfair. The Daily Mail, no slouch when it comes to aggressive tabloid reporting, expressed its sympathy for the fired: “Our sympathies are with the NoW’s innocent sub-editors and printers who can feel with some justification that they have been sacrificed in the ultimately unsustainable attempt to save the job of the company’s chief executive.”

The events also prompted a broad discussion of when newspapers are entitled to break the law in pursuit of information in the public interest. Andrew Gilligan in The Daily Telegraph wrote that “In a country as secretive as Britain, there is sometimes no other way to obtain information of vital public importance,” but added that any instances of subterfuge or hacking needed to be rare and closely managed by editors and managers to ensure they served a truly worthy purpose. Most of the News of World’s exposes were simply too tawdry and personal to justify the methods used to obtain them. There was no public-interest justification for what they did.

There will be one more issue of the News of the World published this Sunday. Its advertising pages are being given over to charities. Within a few months, Murdoch is expected to launch his Sunday Sun to fill the gap. Business will go on. But between now and then, the country is awaiting the sound of many more shoes dropping.