Two prominent British media figures are charged with conspiracy today together with six others in a phone-hacking scandal that has felled much of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid news empire and shaken the British political establishment since coming to light last summer.
Rebekah Brooks, former head of Mr. Murdoch’s UK News Corp.; Andy Coulson, a former Murdoch chief editor and Prime Minister David Cameron’s ex-media chief; and six of 27 others who have been arrested in the past year are involved. They are charged with conspiracy in using often salacious or painfully personal material gained from illegally hacked cellphones as fodder for tabloid stories, embarrassing Mr. Cameron's administration.
As editors wielding enormous clout in the shaping of British media stories, Ms. Brooks and Mr. Coulson were much feared and often hated by British politicians and elites as the engines of a Murdoch machine that made and broke members of parliament and prime ministers. The two figures deny any involvement in phone hacking.
Martin Moore, director of the UK-based Media Standards Trust, argues that prosecutors did not necessarily have to bring charges at this point, implying there must have been enough evidence already to make a case, “and we shall see how much this amounts to over the next few months. But they have sped up the process.”
British police have alleged as many as 4,700 cases of phone hacking, but prosecutors are charging some 600 instances from 2002 to 2006.
The cellphones of British royals and celebrities were long known to be hacked as grist for embarrassing tabloid headlines. But the practice also spread to the phones of ordinary Brits, including war veterans and minors.
Milly Dowler scandal
The boil came to a head last summer when the British newspaper the Guardian broke the Milly Dowler story, showing that News of the World editors had hacked the cellphone of a murdered 13-year-old girl to listen to and delete voice-mail messages. Their interference with the girl's account misled officials and hampered the investigation.
As the scandal and outrage swelled during last July, Murdoch closed the 157-year-old News of the World Sunday tabloid. The Australian-born tycoon then found his efforts to acquire the controlling interest in the most lucrative segment of British media – the British Sky Broadcasting Group satellite cable station – blocked. Control of Sky TV was seen as the jewel in Murdoch’s ample British crown of media dominion.
This week, ahead of the charges, Murdoch resigned as director of all his British media firms, marking the first time he is not the head of a media corporation in Britain in more than 50 years. He has given interviews painting British politics and business in unflattering terms.
Mr. Moore argues that Murdoch’s political influence in “the short and medium term … has much less weight [than before],” but he says there is no legal or institutional barrier for the 81-year-old magnate to try and “reengineer a BSkyB bid.”
It may well be Cameron who will face the most difficult short-term questions over his relations with Brooks and Coulson, casting a shadow over his leadership.
As part of the Leveson inquiry set up last summer to investigate the phone-hacking allegations, e-mails sent by Brooks to Cameron as he ran for office include comments ahead of a key Conservative Party meeting, while Murdoch was reconsidering its support for Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown in favor of Cameron.
“I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam,” her message read, with the final comment a play on President Obama’s campaign slogan.