LONDON — Britain’s phone hacking scandal intensified Wednesday as the scope of tabloid intrusion into private voice mails became clearer: Murder victims. Terror victims. Film stars. Sports figures. Politicians. The royal family’s entourage.
Almost no one, it seems, was safe from a tabloid determined to beat its rivals, whatever it takes.
The focal point is the News of the World — now facing a spreading advertising boycott — and the top executives of its parent companies: Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, and her boss, media potentate Rupert Murdoch.
In his first comment since the latest details emerged, Murdoch said in a statement Wednesday that Brooks would continue to lead his British newspaper operation despite calls for her resignation.
The scandal, which has already touched the office of Prime Minister David Cameron, widened as the Metropolitan Police confirmed they were investigating evidence from News International that the tabloid made illegal payments to police officers in its quest for information.
The list of potential victims also grew. Revelations emerged Wednesday that the phones of relatives of people killed in the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on London’s transit system, as well as those tied to two more slain schoolgirls, may also have been targeted.
As a journalist, I’ve always been intrigued by the cultural and legal differences between my craft as practiced here in the States and the way it’s practiced in Britain. Libel cases, for example, are much easier for media subjects to win in Great Britain, which lacks the “public figure” protection granted media here in the United States. And British courts have much more power to dictate what the media can and cannot report than they do here at home.
Conversely, the British press is typically much more rowdy and colorful than its American counterpart. The boys and girls of Fleet Street do things as a matter of course — half-naked women on Page Six, for example — that most American outlets would never even contemplate. They are also much more willing to invade personal privacy.
At first glance, a media decision to hack into the phone account of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old missing girl, back in 2002 and even delete some taped calls, would seem to have been one step over the line even by British standards. But to an American journalist, it’s remarkable that such an invasive tactic had apparently been more or less accepted in Britain for so long, and is drawing censure and investigation now only because it involved a murder case involving an innocent young woman. (Back in 1993, you may recall, a British magazine published a transcript of a salacious phone call — something involving Tampons — between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles that it had somehow acquired.)
Public outrage over newspaper actions in the Dowling case has grown so strong that it is threatening government approval of a deal by Murdoch to purchase the British Sky Broadcasting Group.
As the WSJ, another Murdoch outfit, reports:
“At the same time, another arm of the U.K. regulatory bureaucracy sounded a cautionary tone on Wednesday. Ofcom, the U.K. communications regulator, issued a statement that serves as a reminder that it effectively has the power to block the deal even though it has already reported to Mr. Hunt that it’s satisfied the transaction wouldn’t harm media plurality in the country.
Ofcom has the authority to take away the broadcasting license of an entity it deems unfit to hold it. Should Ofcom decide that as a result of the phone-hacking allegations News Corp. is unfit to hold a broadcasting license, that could make its takeover of BSkyB, a pay-TV operator, a practical impossibility.
“In the light of the current public debate about phone hacking and other allegations, Ofcom confirms that it has a duty to be satisfied on an ongoing basis that the holder of a broadcasting licence is ‘fit and proper,’” Ofcom said. “We are closely monitoring the situation and in particular the investigations by the relevant authorities into the alleged unlawful activities,” it added.
Personally, I think we’ve found the better balance here. We have more legal leeway to cover affairs of state aggressively, but as a rule are more respectful of the law and personal privacy. On the other hand, in an Internet age, the ability of the industry as a whole to discipline itself in such matters is fast eroding, and there’s not a whole lot that the traditional media can do about that.
– Jay Bookman