Now that the News of the World phone-hacking scandal has finally secured a major scalp — the News of the World itself, closing on Sunday after 168 years in business — it remains to be seen whether the sacrifice of the paper, and of 200 jobs, will be sufficient to prevent the growing scandal from doing further damage to the News of the World’s proprietor, the media empire of Rupert Murdoch.
Just as significantly, it remains to be seen whether Prime Minister David Cameron can avoid being fatally contaminated by his close association with Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor, arrested today in connection with the scandal. Coulson, of course, served as the Conservative Party’s Chief of Communications from July 2007 and then as David Cameron’s personal Chief of Communications from May last year until his resignation in January this year.
Although the scandal first emerged in 2005, in connection with the hacking of phones owned by members of the Royal Family, it took until this week for the public to become sufficiently outraged to ensure that serious action would be taken, beyond the limited action taken in 2007, when the News of the World’s royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for their role in hacking the Royal Family’s phones.
The breaking point this week was the discovery that, as well as hacking the phones of celebrities, the News of the World had also hacked into the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. Further revelations — involving the families of dead soldiers, the parents of the Soham murder victims, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and the victims of the terrorist attacks on July 7, 2005 — confirmed that the scandal was now too big to be swept away as it had been before. Advertisers began leaving the News of the World in droves, and the price of Murdoch’s shares began to tumble.
By closing the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch is clearly hoping to avoid being contaminated by the scandal. Cynically, News International registered websites for the Sun on Sunday just three days ago, suggesting that, once the public’s anger subsides, the News of the World will return in a new guise, with all damaging paperwork conveniently destroyed, and with a unique opportunity to start a new Sunday title without the inconvenience of 200 existing staff.
By axing the title, Rupert Murdoch also appears to have carefully calculated that he will be untouched, that his son James Murdoch (who oversees News International as the Chairman and CEO of News Corporation Europe and Asia) will also be untouched, as, most contentiously, will Rebekah Brooks, the flame-haired Chief Executive of News International, who was the editor of the News of the World from 2000 to 2003, during part of the phone-hacking scandal, and who is also, it should be noted, close to David Cameron.
Sacrificed instead is just one man, Andy Coulson, who was the editor of the News of the World from 2003 to 2007, when he resigned two weeks before Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were convicted.
As the Guardian explained yesterday, Coulson “has always strenuously denied any knowledge of the illegal telephone hacking that is at the heart of the scandal rocking the Murdoch empire,” but evidence leading to his arrest surfaced in “a cache of emails recently uncovered during News International’s internal investigation” into the phone-hacking scandal, which, apparently, indicate that Coulson “approved payments to police officers” — with the suggestion being that the payments may have been not only for information that would lead to the kind of salacious stories for which the News of the World was known, but that may also have included phone numbers that were then hacked.
The sacrifice of Coulson — and how convenient is it that just his name, and that of Clive Goodman, who was rearrested today, turned up during the paper’s “internal investigation”? — comes in spite of the fact that Rebekah Brooks (at the time, Rebekah Wade) acknowledged her own involvement in payments to police officers in March 2003, when she told the Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport, “We have paid the police for information in the past.” At the time, her admission led Alison Clark, the director of corporate affairs at News International, to call reporters to state, “It is not company practice to pay police for information.”
Quite where this leaves the relationship between Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron’s government is unknown, but as Andy Coulson faces questions from the police, his past protestations — and testimony in court — regarding his professed lack of knowledge about the phone-hacking scandal will be coming under the closest scrutiny yet, and David Cameron must be feeling very queasy.
In July 2009, after John Prescott called on Cameron to remove Coulson from his position, following further revelations about phone-hacking in the Guardian, the Prime Minister defended Coulson. “”It’s wrong for newspapers to breach people’s privacy with no justification,” he said. “That is why Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World two and a half years ago.” Cameron added, “Of course I knew about that resignation before offering him the job. I believe in giving people a second chance. As director of communications for the Conservatives he does an excellent job in a proper, upright way at all times.”
Cameron also stood up for Coulson when he finally left No. 10 in January this year, stating, “I am very sorry that Andy Coulson has decided to resign as my Director of Communications, although I understand that the continuing pressures on him and his family mean that he feels compelled to do so. Andy has told me that the focus on him was impeding his ability to do his job and was starting to prove a distraction for the Government.” In the meantime, however, the claims against Coulson piled up, suggesting, at the very least, that the Prime Minister, entrusted to run the country by just 36 percent of the electorate who bothered to vote, was a poor judge of character.
Last September, the New York Times printed new allegations from “more than a dozen former reporters and editors” at the News of the World, in which they
described a frantic, sometimes degrading atmosphere in which some reporters openly pursued hacking or other improper tactics to satisfy demanding editors. Andy Coulson … had imposed a hypercompetitive ethos, even by tabloid standards. One former reporter called it a “do whatever it takes” mentality. The reporter was one of two people who said Coulson was present during discussions about phone hacking.
The New York Times also reported:
One former editor said Coulson talked freely with colleagues about the dark arts, including hacking. “I’ve been to dozens if not hundreds of meetings with Andy” when the subject came up, said the former editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The editor added that when Coulson would ask where a story came from, editors would reply, “We’ve pulled the phone records” or “I’ve listened to the phone messages.”
Sean Hoare, a former reporter and onetime close friend of Coulson’s, also recalled discussing hacking. The two men first worked together at the Sun, where, Hoare said, he played tape recordings of hacked messages for Coulson. At News of the World, Hoare said he continued to inform Coulson of his pursuits. Coulson “actively encouraged me to do it,” Hoare said.
Coulson denied the claims made by the New York Times, but a month later, an unnamed source — apparently a senior ex-News of the World journalist who worked closely with Coulson — told Channel 4’s “Dispatches” that Coulson “not only knew his reporters were using intercepted voicemail but was also personally involved,” as the Guardian explained:
“Sometimes, they would say: ‘We’ve got a recording’ and Andy would say: ‘OK, bring it into my office and play it to me’ or ‘Bring me, email me a transcript of it’,” the journalist said.
Perhaps most worryingly for Coulson and David Cameron, in December last year he “denied in court that he ordered reporters to ‘practise the dark arts’ by illegally hacking phones and ‘blagging’ confidential information when he was editor of the News of the World,” as the Guardian explained. Coulson’s testimony came in the the trial of former Scottish Socialist party leader Tommy Sheridan, accused of perjury during a defamation action against the News of the World in 2006. As the Guardian described the encounter between Sheridan and Coulson:
Coming face-to-face with Sheridan — who is representing himself — Coulson told the high court in Glasgow that he had no idea his newspaper had used private detectives to illegally “hack” phone messages from members of the royal family and other targets. He repeatedly denied promoting a “culture” of hacking and “blagging”, where people’s confidential data such as tax details, criminal records or phone bills were illegally accessed, in the NoW’s newsroom.
Coulson denied even knowing the private investigator at the heart of the NoW phone-hacking scandal, Glenn Mulcaire. “I didn’t know him as an individual. I didn’t meet him, didn’t speak to him, didn’t email him, never heard his name,” he said.
Coulson also deneid any knowledge of paying police officers for information. Sheridan asked him, “Did the News of the World pay corrupt police officers?” to which Coulson replied, “Not to my knowledge.”
If this seems implausible, the truth will, perhaps, emerge in the days and weeks to come, as those who have now abandoned Andy Coulson — Rupert Murdoch and his inner circle, David Cameron, and the Metropolitan Police — continue their struggle to distance themselves from the fallout.
While the Murdochs still hope to have successfully evaded major scrutiny, Labour MP Tom Watson, who has led the campaign to expose phone hacking, has his sights set on James Murdoch. Watson told an emergency House of Commons debate yesterday, as the Daily Telegraph described it, that “the police should investigate ‘an attempt to pervert the course of justice’ of which he said Mr. Murdoch, the son of Rupert Murdoch, was at the centre.”
I believe James Murdoch should be suspended from office while the police now investigate what I believe was his personal authorisation to plan a cover-up of this scandal. Mr. James Murdoch is the chairman. It is clear now that he personally, without board approval, authorised money to be paid by his company to silence people who had been hacked and to cover up criminal behaviour within his organisation. This is nothing short of an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
As the Telegraph described it, Watson “also said he wanted detectives to ask Mr. Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks … whether they knew of an attempted destruction of data at a storage facility in Chennai, India, adding:
Their behaviour to the most vulnerable, their knowledge of law-breaking and their failure to act, their links with the criminal underworld, their attempts to cover up law-breaking and pay for people’s silence tell the world all we need to know about their character: that they are not fit and proper persons to control any part of the media in this country.
In seeking to evade being tainted by association, David Cameron has refused to apologize for employing Andy Coulson, and has, instead, announced two inquiries — a judge-led inquiry to investigate why the original police investigation into the phone hacking scandal stopped abruptly with the prosecution of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, which is also intended to examine how the News of the World and other newspapers operate — or operated — and a second inquiry, by a panel of experts, which will look at the “culture, ethics and practices of the British press.”
The investigation into the police must also be worrying to senior figures in the British establishment, given the persistence of stories about payments from the News of the World to police officers. In its major feature on the scandal last September, the New York Times made the following observations:
“There was simply no enthusiasm among Scotland Yard to go beyond the cases involving Mulcaire and Goodman,” said John Whittingdale, the chairman of a parliamentary committee that has twice investigated the phone hacking. “To start exposing widespread tawdry practices in that newsroom was a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift.” Several investigators said in interviews that Scotland Yard was reluctant to conduct a wider inquiry in part because of its close relationship with News of the World.
With that particular “close relationship” under scrutiny, the other “close relationship” — between the Tories and Murdoch — also deserves watching closely. David Cameron, who gained the support of the Murdoch press before last year’s General Election, has rather openly — and disgracefully — been working to help Murdoch’s media empire since the election. When Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary, criticised the proposal to allow Murdoch’s News Corporation to swallow up BSkyB, he was dumped in favor of the more compliant Tory culture secretary Jeremy Hunt.
The decision to allow Murdoch to create a worryingly large media empire was supposed to be waved through this week, but the inconvenient scandal has derailed the plans until September at least. This gives opponents of the plan the opportunity to rally opposition in unprecedented numbers, which will force the government into a difficult position, unless — uniquely — senior ministers decide that allowing Murdoch to do whatever he wishes is too politically damaging.
Whatever the eventual outcome, I hope that the sleaze emanating from Wapping will encourage far more people than previously to ask hard questions about the supposed integrity of politicians, the police and the kinds of journalists and newspapers who, it seems, constantly put profits before principles.
Most of all, though, despite my long and entrenched dislike of Murdoch’s media empire, I’d like to see the scandal damage David Cameron, a deceptive and dangerous leader who has tried to claim the moral high ground, pumping out a message of necessary austerity to disguise the fact that he and his Party are savaging the British state on ideological grounds, when all along he is as corrupt as those who have preceded him.