Sleaze of the world

July 12, 2011

Nicole Colson looks at the scandal that erupted in Britain over the illegal and disgusting tactics used by Rupert Murdoch's tabloid News of the World.

GOOD RIDDANCE to bad rubbish.

That's what many in Britain are saying after the shutdown of the notorious tabloid News of the World following revelations about how low the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper sank in its drive for salacious scoops.

Allegations have been swirling for years that the tabloid newspaper hacked into the phones of prominent celebrities, as well as members of the royal family, in search of titillating details about the personal lives of the rich and famous.

Hacking--carried out by a News of the World editor and a private investigator working for the paper--was confirmed back in 2006 by Scotland Yard investigators. But high-profile hearings in parliament in 2007 and 2009 were narrowly focused, and Murdoch officials at the time suggested the practice was confined to a couple of individuals and not widespread.

But the scandal got a second--and third and fourth--wind when it was revealed, primarily by the Guardian newspaper, that News of the World hacking went far beyond targeting a few rich or famous individuals.

Rupert Murdoch with News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks
Rupert Murdoch with News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks

The paper also, it was revealed earlier this month, hacked into the phone of a murdered schoolgirl named Milly Dowler--even deleting messages left by distraught family members after her disappearance, which gave her family false hope that Milly was alive and deleting the messages herself.

Then, in the vilest move of all, the paper sent reporters to the family's home to interview them about their hopes that the missing teen was still alive.

As of July 11, the Dowler family told the media that they still hadn't received any apology from anyone involved with the Murdoch press for the hacking of Milly's cell phone.

The practice wasn't confined to the Dowler family, either. As many as 7,000 people may have had their phones hacked by the paper, according to one lawyer's estimate.

Other targets of hacking included family members of British soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and relatives of victims of the July 2005 London subway bombings. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was apparently a target, allegedly by another Murdoch paper, the Sun--as were prominent left-wing politicians like Member of Parliament George Galloway and Scottish socialist Tommy Sheridan.

Although Galloway was notified in 2006 that his phone was hacked, Scotland Yard refused to tell him who did it. Most of the "ordinary" victims of the paper were never notified at all, raising questions about the degree to which police knew about the paper's actions and looked the other way because of bribes, a practice News of the World officials reportedly bragged about.

The paper apologized and admitted liability in eight cases in April--but as Galloway said at the time, the apology was "a cynical attempt to protect the company's chief executive," Rebekah Brooks--who remains, to this day, chief executive of Murdoch's News International, the British subsidiary of his international News Corporation empire.

But now, the noose may be tightening around Brooks. Last week, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as well as former reporter Clive Goodman were arrested in connection with alleged payments to police, and the smart money has Brooks coming under increasing scrutiny.

VULTURES, PARASITES, inhuman--there aren't enough words to describe just how disgusting the actions of those who ran the paper were.

Some, of course, like former News of the World Deputy Features Editor Paul McMullan, are now offering weak explanations about being "truth seekers"--as though hacking into the voicemail messages of a kidnapped school girl or distraught family members of dead soldiers was somehow comparable to exposing corruption.

If Rupert Murdoch has his way, some current or former executives like Coulson may take the heat, but he'll be able to keep his media empire intact.

Of particular concern to Murdoch--and the main reason he was so quick to shut down the News of the World--is his current bid to buy British Sky Broadcasting. Murdoch closed the paper not because he feels any remorse about the actions of his employees and executives, but because the scandal threatens to wreck his $12 billion bid to buy the 61 percent of the lucrative Sky operation that News Corporation does not already own.

The deal was reportedly set to go through when the latest scandal forced a delay in the sale by the British government. As this article was being written, the opposition Labour Party, sensing a vulnerability for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron because of his particular ties to the Murdoch machine, declared that it would seek a vote in the House of Commons on the sale--a possible death-blow to the deal. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, also came forward to urge Murdoch to drop the deal--the highest-ranking politician so far to openly turn on Murdoch.

Some writers are focusing on the lost jobs at the News of the World, where staff learned they would be unemployed at a hastily called afternoon meeting last week.

It is very unfair that lowly copy editors are losing their jobs while Murdoch remains in charge of his media empire as it vomits more filth. But British actor Steve Coogan--one of those who pursued the paper for years after finding out his phone had been hacked--provided a broader perspective in an interview with the BBC after the decision to close News of the World was announced:

People keep saying it's a bad day for the press. I think it's a wonderful day for the press. I think it's a small victory for decency and humanity...Let's not forget that the News of the World is, and always has been, as far as I'm concerned, a misogynistic, xenophobic, single-parent-hating, asylum-seeker-hating newspaper, and has gone to the wall. And I'm delighted.

Coogan is right. The Murdoch empire--from News of the World in the UK, to the New York Post and Fox News in the U.S., with a thin cover provided by prestigious publications such as the Times of London--has always been a bastion of right-wing reaction and pseudo-populist outrage, usually directed in whatever way Murdoch deems beneficial to his own interests.

Murdoch's media franchises are often built on the kind of "journalism" in which News of the World engaged--and it would be highly surprising if the boss at the top of it all had no idea it was happening.

For Murdoch, news has never been about "seeking the truth," but about selling papers and influencing public opinion. That included gaining access to prominent politicians--including successive British prime ministers going back to Margaret Thatcher, not to mention plenty of American political leaders.

As Lance Price, a former BBC journalist and one-time adviser to former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, wrote in the Daily Mail:

[T]he truth is that Murdoch had politicians dancing like puppets for too long.

On one level, it was a relationship born out of hard-headed self-interest on both sides. As Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair flew to Australia to address senior executives of Murdoch's parent company, News Corporation. Before the meeting, he got some advice from Paul Keating, then prime minister of Australia, on how to deal with the tycoon. Keating told Blair: "You can do deals with him without ever saying a deal has been done." And that is exactly what happened...

Murdoch will always back a winner. Convince him you're going to succeed and he'll throw his weight behind you. Not just because it creates the impression--falsely in my view--that leaders need his support to get into Number 10. Murdoch is a businessman first, second and last. Playing politics for politics' sake comes very low down his list of priorities...

News Corporation's commercial interests are well-served if the man or woman inside Downing Street feels indebted to its titles.

TODAY, THE opposition Labour Party sees an opportunity to kick Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron over his close ties to the Murdoch machine.

In May 2010, Cameron named Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor, as his communications director--and of course, it was sheer coincidence that Murdoch's papers endorsed Cameron in the general election. Coulson finally resigned in January of this year because of the hacking scandal revelations of his role in it.

Cameron, now in damage control mode, has ordered two inquiries into the scandal. But while he may be in a particularly sticky situation because of his ties to Coulson, such a relationship is by no means unique--either in Britain or elsewhere.

In May 2006, for example, then-Fox News anchor Tony Snow became press secretary for George W. Bush.

As a rule, major papers often cultivate ties to the rich and powerful--and to police, who are both a valued source of information and a potential conspirator that can turn a blind eye to activities that skirt the law or break it, as is alleged in the News of the World case).

The Murdoch press stands apart as morally bankrupt. But the scandal also illustrates what happens when a supposed "watchdog press" is really a wholly partisan business enterprise.

Nor is the problem, as some suggest, limited to "tabloid journalism." Virtually all of Murdoch's media empire offers the same pro-business reactionary world view--whether it comes from the News of the World or the august Wall Street Journal.

As British socialist Richard Seymour commented at his "Lenin's Tomb" blog:

In the closure of News of the World is a specific political situation that condenses not just the prevalent antagonisms and crises in the media industry--which, faced with a crisis of profitability has resorted more and more to the sort of methods recently disclosed--but also a generalized crisis of authority for the state, from politicians to the police. All the newspapers who rely on such methods are now looking over their shoulders, however much they publicly crow about News of the World's downfall.

For decades, politicians have shamelessly prostrated themselves to win Murdoch's favor. It's a victory and a pleasure to watch Murdoch be dealt a blow for once--even if more "respectable" media outlets have surely profited not only from some of the same practices, but from posing themselves as supposed "alternatives" to the Murdoch propaganda machine.

Further Reading

From the archives