The News of the World, a British tabloid juggernaut owned by Rupert Murdoch, has long made a habit of skirting ethical lines by using private investigators to hack into the cellphone messages of celebrities, politicians, and royals to write about their private thoughts and sex lives.
While occasionally yielding arrests or fines, the tabloid has used a public interest defense to justify its methods. The high-profile victims were largely seen as fair game, and its knack for breaking news stories has helped make the News of the World the largest circulation paper in the English-speaking world.
But this time the News of the World has been found interfering with the investigation of a 13-year-old girl's murder, and possibly eavesdropping on the private conversations of people who lost loved ones in the 7/7 2005 terrorist attack on the London transit system. News International, the UK-subsidiary of Murdoch's Newscorp and the parent company of The News, also provided evidence to investigators today that it has paid British cops for information. News International is now run by Rebekah Brooks, the editor of The News at the time the hacking took place.
The paper is now widely deemed to have gone too far and advertisers have been abandoning the Murdoch tabloid in droves this week. What has drawn most opprobrium are allegations that a News of the World private investigator not only listened to the voicemail messages left on the phone of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002, but deleted existing messages when the mail box grew full. That action, the Dowler family’s solicitor has claimed, could have jeopardized the police investigation and gave her family false hope that she might be still alive (her body was found later).
The incident “reveals a very dark side to British tabloid culture," says Senior BBC journalist John Ware. "There is no public interest defence for hacking into the phones of missing people and bereft families. It’s unconscionable."
UK Prime Minister David Cameron called the hacking incident “absolutely disgusting.” British media commentators and politicians believe the tabloid’s interception of the missing schoolgirl’s phone oversteps all ethical boundaries and there are now wide calls for tighter regulation of the press.
Revelations that hacking targets do not just include “the rich and famous” have led to accusations that the tabloid press has no scruples in interfering with the privacy of ordinary members of the public. In the past few days, demands for media reform have come in particular from media academics, editors of broadsheets, and opposition politicians. For instance, Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, which revealed that Ms. Dowler’s phone was intercepted, has called for a reform of the Press Complaints Commission
The BBC's Ware isn't so sure. "Inevitably, calls for tighter media regulation will follow," he says. "But I’m not sure that is the best way of dealing with these sorts of incidents. It will make other, more justifiable, journalistic pursuits more difficult.”
In 2007, Clive Goodman, the former royal editor of the News of the World, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, were jailed for illegally listening to the voice-mails of one of the British princes. A 2000 law made hacking into voicemail inboxes and email accounts illegal for private citizens. But Dominic Ponsford of the Press Gazette says reality only sunk in after the pair went to jail.
“Before Goodman and Mulcaire were sent to prison there didn’t seem to be much awareness of the fact that phone hacking is against the law," he says. "I think, now, press owners will argue that phone hacking is a historic problem that was stamped out in 2007 and there is very little evidence it has happened since then. But in order for the press to restore public trust it’s going need to show that it’s taking strong action to get its house in order.”
Mr. Ponsford believes that the phone hacking scandal “is probably a symptom of the highly competitive nature of the British tabloid press. People go that extra mile to get stories.”
The hacking scandal has also led to political fallout with opposition politicians questioning Mr. Cameron’s close ties with Murdoch’s News Corporation. Earlier this year, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson stepped down as head of communications for Cameron’s Conservative Party amid growing controversy over phone hacking during his editorship. Rebekah Brooks is a personal friend of the prime minister.