THERE have been times since the News of the World phone-hacking scandal — and News International sub-scandals — broke when I’ve lost the plot. Watergate and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy are Enid Blyton bed-time stories by comparison.
This detailed history fills in the gaps from 2005, when the story first oozed up from the sewer, to the opening months of the Leveson inquiry. It is co-authored by the Labour MP Tom Watson, who led the tenacious questioning of Rupert and James Murdoch before the House of Commons culture and media select committee, and who likened Rupert to a mafia boss. That comparison was unfair to the mafia; a gangster operation run by Rupert and his clueless son would be rumbled in short order, even by the Italian police.
With circulations falling in the late 1990s, the red-top newspapers were in a frenzy of unparalleled junk journalism. The focus was — and remains — on celebrities: royals major and minor; movie and television stars (especially from soaps, such as EastEnders and Coronation Street) and soccer players.
In their quest for celebrity drivel, newsrooms and the private investigators they employed were aided by a new tool: hacking mobile phone messages and computer databases. No matter that it was illegal, or that it dug up the rubbish that publicists dish out for free every day on behalf of the ‘celebcracy’. A 2001 Devon investigation — unrelated to newspapers — into the sale of information held on police computers led to two bent cops, and then on to the Hampshire home of a private detective whose list of regular clients included not only the ‘Screws of the World’ (then edited by Rebekah Wade), but also the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the People, and the Daily Mirror.
The private detective ran a network of corrupt officials and con artists who provided phone, car-registration and criminal records requested by his clients. His gross income from 17,489 ‘orders’ was £1.8m between 2001 and 2003. Britain’s information commissioner had evidence to prosecute the 305 journalists who had kept the detective so busy. But prosecute is what he didn’t do.
Confident that the arm of the law was not long enough to collar them, NOTW hacks not only maintained the hacking at its previous industrial level, but also extended its scope.
Late in 2005, the NOTW published two hardly world-beating stories about Prince William: he was having treatment for a dodgy knee, and he’d borrowed film-editing kit from a friend at ITN to make a DVD of his gap year.
This was stuff that hadn’t been put out by his father’s publicity people, so how could the paper — now edited by Andy Coulson — have learned of them? New Scotland Yard’s finest, facing a heightened terrorist threat after the London tube and bus bombings, was asked to investigate.
The NOTW’s royalty editor, Clive Goodman, was charged, along with a private investigator, Glen Mulcaire, whose company was being paid £104,988 a year by News International (NI) for ‘research’ services.
Mulcaire was also getting £500 a week in folding money from Goodman. Both men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to intercept communications. Goodman went down for four months, Mulcaire for six, because he’d also owned up to hacking the phones of five named celebrities, including supermodel Elle Macpherson and the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Graham Taylor.
The police and NI execs knew that Mulcaire had other clients at the NOTW … 28 of them. Special Branch had the records Mulcaire kept of his ‘research’ work — 11,000 A4 sheets listing thousands of names, phone numbers and PIN codes.
There were, though, no further prosecutions. Hush-money payments were made by NI to Goodman and Mulcaire; £425,000 plus £200,000 for legal costs was paid, with James’s approval, to Gordon Taylor in exchange for his silence after the discovery of an email proving that his voicemail had been hacked by the NOTW; and Rupert’s London people constructed their “rogue reporter” cover story. It was Goodman, and only Goodman, wot done it.
The line held for five years. It was breached when the BBC revealed that NI intended to settle up to 91 claims, and had set aside £20m for payouts. James, now in charge of the corporation’s UK businesses, was sanguine.
“It shows that what we were able to do is really put this problem into a box. If you get everybody sucked into something like that, then the whole business will sputter, which you don’t really want,” he said.
That’s exactly what the “whole business” did when the extent of the stupidity and amorality of the grisly editorial culture created by NOTW editors was revealed on Jul 4 last year by the Guardian’s Nick Davies.
Hacking the phones of the famous — and the famous for being famous — is one thing; they might well have got away with that in the ‘court’ of public opinion. Celebrities live by publicity; whatever MPs — especially those with form as Murdochphobes — might think, most people are happy to see them skewered by it, too. But targeting the phone of a missing 13-year-old girl — later found murdered — sent a swell of deep disgust throughout the country. That was done in 2002, when Wade was the NOTW’s editor. The phone belonging to the father of one of two children murdered in Cambridgeshire, also in 2002, was on Mulcaire’s list, too.
Since then, as the Met re-opened the file and MPs resumed their investigations, NI’s ‘operation cover-up’ has staggered from farce to tragedy and back again — quite a poor show for an organisation accustomed to, as James might put it, really putting problems into boxes.
It is extraordinarily difficult to believe that a newspaper can routinely pay serious money to a private investigator without its editor knowing why. It is impossible to believe that a newspaper can run stories without an editor — at whatever level — knowing how they were sourced. How a CEO can sign off a payment of £625,000 without asking, or knowing, why is beyond my comprehension.
There is more to be learnt. There will be a sequel to this history: the Leveson inquiry continues; there might or might not be charges and trials; the future of at least one cabinet minister is in doubt, as is that of Murdoch’s UK interests, although he will not now get his hands on the majority chunk of BSkyB.
Watson and Independent writer Matthew Hickman have not set out an open-and-shut case proving that Rupert has corrupted Britain. If he has, he’s found no trouble recruiting home-grown accomplices who ought to have known better. He has contributed to the debasement and dumbing down of Britain’s media and politics. If the consequence is a statutory privacy law, then we’ll know that it was Rupert wot done it.
Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson, MP, and Martin Hickman, published by Allen Lane, £20