A media empire crumbles

by Hugh Cortazzi

Scandals have often dominated the British media, but few have been as remarkable as the revelations which have been appearing almost every day about the misdeeds of journalists on the British populist mass circulation Sunday paper The News of the World. This was owned by News International which is run by Rupert Murdoch, Australian by birth and American by choice. Because of its illegal practices it was being boycotted by advertisers and it has now been closed after 168 years of operation.

News International also owns in Britain the populist daily The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times. News International has in addition 39 percent of the shares of the very successful satellite broadcasting company BSKYB. Murdoch has been trying to get permission to buy the rest of the shares in this company thus consolidating his control of a significant share of the British media.

Murdoch has accepted that, in view of the scandalous behavior revealed at The News of the World his bid for the remaining shares in BSKYB should be dropped. British public opinion, in light of the shenanigans which have been revealed, would not at present accept that News International is a fit and proper company to take control of BSKYB.

Phone hacking by News of the World reporters and agents acting on their behalf first came to light in 2005. As a result of police enquiries into alleged hacking of the personal telephones of Princes William and Harry, the paper’s royal correspondent and a private detective, used by him to obtain information by illegal methods, were convicted and jailed in early 2007.

The then editor of The News of the World was Andy Coulson, who denied any knowledge of the hacking. He resigned as editor, but has recently been arrested on suspicion of authorising payments to police officers for information. He had been taken on by Prime Minister David Cameron as his public relations adviser but, because of increasing leaks about phone hacking at his former paper, he resigned from his position in the Prime Minister’s office.

Cameron had appointed Coulson possibly on the recommendation of Rebekah Brooks, who was Coulson’s predecessor as editor of The News of the World, and is now chief executive of News International in London — and is a personal friend of the prime minister. It has been reported that Cameron was warned against choosing Coulson but decided to ignore the warnings. He is now being accused of making a serious error of judgement in appointing Coulson.

The allegations against The News of the World have been coming out in quick succession. It first emerged that a number of celebrities including politicians, actors and sportsmen had had their phones hacked by the paper, which in some cases admitted responsibility and agreed to pay damages.

Leaked emails subsequently suggested that payments had been made to police officers for information. This was followed by reports that the phone of a murdered schoolgirl had been hacked and messages deliberately deleted in such a way as to suggest that she might still be alive, thus complicating the police investigation into the case. This revelation caused a furious reaction that grew in intensity as it was reported that the mobile phones of victims of the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London and of the families of soldiers who had been killed in Afghanistan had been hacked to provide “human interest stories.”

The public were further shocked by reports on July 11 that a police officer in the royal protection squad had asked for £1,000 for a book containing the private telephone numbers of members of the royal family and household staff.

The News of the World is not the only Murdoch paper to be accused of illegal practices. It is alleged that The Sunday Times attempted to obtain information illegally about a purchase of a property by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and that The Sun illegally obtained access to the medical records of Brown’s handicapped son.

Allegations have been made against other newspapers such as The Daily Star that they too have benefited from illegal devices such as phone hacking and blagging (where someone pretends to be someone else and obtains by deception confidential personal information).

Both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have been too close to News International and Rupert Murdoch in particular. Their hope and expectation had been that in return for indulgences News International owned media would report favorably on their policies. It has been reported in this context that Rebekah Brooks made it clear that anyone who questioned too closely New International’s activities would be targeted by the organization.

No one comes out of this with an enhanced reputation. The reputation of News International, its chairman Rupert Murdoch and his henchmen in particular his son, James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks have all been seriously tarnished. Cameron’s judgement in appointing Andy Coulson to run his press office has been shown wanting. The politicians in both the Conservative and Labour parties, who cozied up to Rupert Murdoch and News International, have demonstrated their sycophancy towards the media. The police failure to pursue the investigation into phone hacking with due diligence and the apparent cover up of the receipt of corrupt payments for information puts them in the spotlight.

The government under pressure from Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour opposition, have agreed to set up two enquiries. One of these will look into the way in which the investigation has been conducted; the other will consider what measures are needed to ensure that the press adheres to ethical practices in its pursuit of news. Both enquiries should go ahead quickly but it is important that the inquiry into the way in which the media operates does not lead to restrictions on press freedom which would unreasonably curb investigative journalism. This is necessary to ensure open and fair government that is not open to corruption.

Hugh Cortazzi served as U.K. ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.