NOT for nothing is it known as the gutter press. The allegations that the News of the World, Britain’s biggest Sunday newspaper, broke into the voicemail of a murdered teenage girl, is a stain on the newspaper and on News International, its owner. But the stench is much more widespread. As new allegations of lawbreaking surface, journalism itself is reeking. So are Britain’s politicians and especially its police.
Britain has long had a scrappy press. A brutally competitive newspaper market encourages screaming headlines and intrusive tittle-tattle. In France a politician’s peccadillos may be kept quiet for years. In Britain they are splashed across the front pages. Britons know their newspapers are rude, excessive and unreliable. But they want them to draw blood from politicians and misbehaving celebrities.
Thanks largely to some splendid muckraking by the Guardian, it is now clear how one tabloid obtained some of its headlines. The News of the World seems routinely to have asked a private investigator to hack into mobile-phone mailboxes, which is a crime. Until this week the victims seemed to be celebrities, publicists, politicians and other journalists—the sort of people who, in the British mind, probably deserve what they get. But a lawyer representing the family of the murdered girl claims that police said her phone was hacked in a way that raised hopes that she was alive. The families of terrorism victims, dead soldiers and two other murdered girls are also said to have been targeted. If true, that is callousness heaped on criminality.
Four deeply worrying questions emerge from this. The first is how a newsroom could run so far out of control. And almost certainly not just one newsroom. In 2006 the Information Commissioner explained that the use of private investigators was widespread. It is notable that Britain’s other tabloid newspapers, which love to kick a rival when it is down, have been disturbingly quiet about the allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World. It may turn out that the paper was merely the most enthusiastic, ruthless lawbreaker among several.
The second question concerns News International, the British newspaper arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. It has consistently ducked and twisted. For as long as they could get away with it, executives claimed the phone hacking was the doing of a rogue reporter. When that argument was demolished, they claimed few knew of wrongdoing. Rebekah Brooks, News International’s chief executive, told staff this week that it was inconceivable she knew of the alleged phone hacking when she was editor of the News of the World. Yet if the allegations are true, many journalists at the newspaper would have known about such practices, and failed to report them. That can only happen in an outfit that has lost any sense of right and wrong. The notion that its rivals were perhaps doing the same thing is no excuse.
Then there are the police. The initial investigation by the Metropolitan Police into phone hacking was pitiful. For years the cops sat on a huge sheaf of seized documents and did nothing. Sloppiness is one thing. But the police tend to be hand-in-glove with popular newspapers. An implicit deal applies: we give you stories, you raise the alarm about criminals on the loose. And, occasionally, put your hand in your pocket too. Files handed over last month suggest that police received some payments from the News of the World.
The politicians who have fulminated against the press over the past few days are tainted, too. Far from urging the police to conduct a full investigation, they have long cosied up to the tabloids. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s powerful director of communications, came from the Daily Mirror. Andy Coulson, who resigned as editor of the News of the World in 2007, went on to run David Cameron’s communications machine. Fear seems to play a role. One member of the parliamentary culture committee alleged last year that members had been warned they could be targeted by newspapers if they insisted on summoning Mrs Brooks to give evidence against her will.
It is a depressing mess—and one with wide consequences. As the Times, another Murdoch paper, has correctly pointed out, British journalism is in its equivalent of the MPs expenses scandal. Given the uselessness of the Press Complaints Commission throughout, this affair will only encourage demands for regulatory oversight of the press. This would probably do more harm than good. Britain already has the toughest libel laws in the world, which have been misused repeatedly to protect the rich and the powerful; and giving the state power to regulate the press is a dangerous temptation to governments.
So what should be done? Within News International anyone implicated directly in any aspect of this saga—not just the apparent phone hacking at the News of the World but the obfuscations since—should immediately stand down, pending a proper police investigation. Then there needs to be a judicial inquiry, with the power to call witnesses, including police officers, under oath. That should cover all newspapers, not just Mr Murdoch’s, and ferret out other dodgy activities, such as obtaining private medical records and credit-card transactions. If the result of such an inquiry is a bloodbath in Fleet Street and Scotland Yard, so be it. Mr Cameron’s refusal to push ahead with this forcefully is incredibly cowardly and shortsighted.
Some MPs have called for News Corporation’s purchase of the 61% of BSkyB it does not already own to be delayed, while Britain’s media regulator investigates whether the firm is a “fit and proper” owner of the satellite-TV company. That is a stretch. The acquisition, which this newspaper thought was fair, is a matter of competition law. The regulator can find a broadcaster to be unfit, and yank its licence, at any time.
It also misses the point. Mr Murdoch is a ferocious businessman who has helped steer media through a treacherous digital transition. But if it is proven that News Corporation’s managers condoned lawbreaking, they should not be running any newspaper or television firm. They should be in prison.
from The Economist