We all know that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel here in the States is a haven of lies, propaganda and ideological hacks who shamelessly stump for the right-wing whilst masquerading as a “news” organization. But I don’t think any of us could have guessed just how sleazy Murdoch’s operation can be.
How sleazy, you ask?
Try hacking the phone of a dead girl, families of dead soldiers or the victims of a terrorist attack.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When you look at all of the moving parts at play in this story, you really wonder if this could possibly bring Murdoch’s media empire to its knees, or, at least, deliver a serious blow to its credibility and influence.
Some of you may remember earlier this year when actress Sienna Miller settled with Murdoch’s weekly tabloid, News of the World (NoW), after the paper admitted to hacking into her cell phone in 2005 and 2006 and publishing very personal information. It was later revealed that NoW had also hacked into the phones of people like Jude Law, Hugh Grant, and other prominent figures in the British sport and entertainment fields. And up until last week, the NoW’s deplorable practices were sort of brushed aside.
Until the shit hit the fan, that is.
On Monday, The Guardian broke the story of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who went missing from her home town in Surrey in March of 2002. Milly and her family were immediately targeted by NoW, who enlisted the services of a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who obtained Milly’s cell phone number and managed to hack into her voicemail. Journalists at NoW proceeded to intercept voicemails left for Milly from frantic friends and family, urging her to call home. As The Guardian reports:
The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive. Police feared evidence may have been destroyed.
The Guardian investigation has shown that, within a very short time of Milly vanishing, News of the World journalists reacted by engaging in what was standard practice in their newsroom: they hired private investigators to get them a story.
Then, with the help of its own full-time private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, the News of the World started illegally intercepting mobile phone messages. Scotland Yard is now investigating evidence that the paper hacked directly into the voicemail of the missing girl’s own phone. As her friends and parents called and left messages imploring Milly to get in touch with them, the News of the World was listening and recording their every private word.
But the journalists at the News of the World then encountered a problem. Milly’s voicemail box filled up and would accept no more messages. Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened – and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.
Misled indeed. Milly was found dead months later, and during the time before her body was discovered, her family gave an exclusive interview to NoW:
The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper’s own intervention. Sally Dowler told the paper: “If Milly walked through the door, I don’t think we’d be able to speak. We’d just weep tears of joy and give her a great big hug.”
Are you sick to your stomach yet?
The Guardian’s investigation into the journalistic practices of NoW, revealed that not only had they hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, but they had also hacked the phones of other sensitive citizens, including the families of victims of the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London, the father of another murder victim, the alleged victim of a rapist, families of fallen British soldiers, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, several members of the media, members of parliament, Prince William and Prince Harry, other members of the royal family, and several members of Scotland Yard.
The person of interest at the center of this is Rebekah Brooks, who was the editor in chief at NoW when Milly’s phone was hacked, and who is now head of Murdoch’s NewsCorp UK operations. In a stunning move that can only be described as stunningly stupid, Murdoch has appointed Brooks to oversee the investigation into the hacking that took place under her watch. Brooks, in a craven effort to cover her own ass, sent an email to her staff saying:
“It is almost too horrific to believe that a professional journalist or even a freelance inquiry agent working on behalf of a member of the News of the World staff could behave in this way.
If the allegations are proved to be true then I can promise the strongest possible action will be taken as this company will not tolerate such disgraceful behaviour.
I hope that you all realise it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations.”
In addition to Brooks, there is Andy Coulson, who was NoW’s editor from 2003-2007 and now serves as Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief, and who some are suggesting is being turned into a sacrificial lamb to protect Brooks.
In one of many, many supplemental reports from The Guardian, Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, has said that NoW made “inappropriate payments” of at least “£100,000 in cash” to police officers investigating the hacking:
The Guardian understands three to five police officers, who are not of senior rank but include detectives, will be the focus of the inquiry. Documents sent to the police on 20 June by News International did not give many clues as to the identity of those who reportedly received payments for information. All the payments are understood to have taken place in 2003, the year Rebekah Brooks handed editorship of the News of the World to Andy Coulson.
Coulson faces further scrutiny after News International, publisher of NoW and owned by NewsCorp, revealed an email cache:
On Tuesday, News International indicated that it was aware of “worse” allegations than the suggestion that the News of the World had hacked into the mobile phone belonging to Milly Dowler, and that more would come in the evening. It turned out that the subject of the allegations was Coulson, once a fellow rising star and close friend of Rebekah Brooks when she edited and he was her deputy at the News of the World.
The question marks about Coulson may have emerged at a moment of crisis for Brooks, but the rupture between the News International chief executive and Coulson has been brewing for some months. Brooks has been criticising Coulson with surprising candour in private meetings. She and other senior figures at the company – such as Les Hinton, the former chairman of News International who is now chief executive officer of Dow Jones & Company – were unhappy that Coulson was so wedded to such a high-profile role.
Of course, all of this is having a monumentally negative effect. Advertisers like Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Tesco, Ford, Vauxhall, and Mitsubishi have yanked or are in the process of yanking their ads from NoW. The Royal British Legion, an armed forces charity, has severed ties with the paper, and stock prices for NewsCorp have tumbled in the wake of the scandal.
Whether we’re witnessing the initial unraveling of Murdoch’s empire remains to be seen, but as more disturbing details emerge, it’s hard to imagine how ol’ Rupert’s going to get himself out of this mess.
In a late breaking development, it was announced today that News of the World will be shutting down for good. You can read the full statement from James Murdoch, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, News Corporation, and Chairman, News International here.
Follow The Guardian’s live blog here.