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Phone Hacking and the Death of a Newspaper

August 1, 2011

So to the other big story that crashed and splashed during my virtual absence last month – the phone hacking scandal, the demise of the News of the World and the humbling of Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the said British newspaper and half the world’s media besides.

What blew the half-open lid off the phone hacking epidemic – half-open because the practice first surfaced in 2006, and a couple of people have served jail sentences as the result – was the revelation that the NoW hacked into the phone of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler.

Now I have a personal interest in the Milly Dowler case. Milly grew up near my home town. She was a couple of years older than my younger daughter, went to the same school as her, and my wife was a governor of the school for several years.

I never knew Milly or her family, but I was a witness to the effect her abduction had on the school, her fellow students and their parents.

The  phone hacking allegation surfaced during the trial of her murderer, in which information about the Dowler family was revealed of such intimacy that it constituted a fresh trauma on top of the original devastation of losing their daughter. I can hardly imagine what the poor family went through.

That some grubby piece of low life, as is alleged by another newspaper, hacked into Milly’s phone and deleted some messages, thus giving hope to the parents that she was still alive, took the scandal way beyond the illegality of wading through the murky messages of various celebrities and minor royals.

I’m not sure what kind of book the police are preparing to throw at the perpetrators. Equally, the chain of responsibility for the hacking is unclear – again subject to police investigation and the recent grilling of Murdoch, his son and the paper’s editor at that time by a UK parliamentary committee.

But the fact that other hacking cases were proven said much about the mindset in the UK’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper. After all, someone must have approved of the practice. Even if those who did approve it were fairly low down the food chain, it’s hard to believe that the seasoned muckrakers at the highest level of the News of The World did not question the source of whatever information the hackers dredged from the electronic closets of the targeted celebs.

So Murdoch closed down the newspaper. Quite a big deal, considering that the NoW had been around for over 150 years and had the largest circulation of any British publication.  

For those who know nothing about the paper, its popular alias was the News of the Screws. “The World” generally accounted for a tiny minority of its subject matter. Most of its content was sport, sleaze, sex and celebs. In recent years its turf had been threatened by a relative newcomer, the Sport, whose content tends to be even more fixated on “tits’n’ass” than the NoW. That must have increased the pressure on the NoW’s editors to dig up yet more dirt for the breakfast tables of its readers.

Before phone hacking became à la mode, the paper had long used other standard tabloid methods of digging for dirt. Long lens cameras, waiting for the celeb to emerge worse for wear from some nightclub, pictures of a coke addict’s shattered nose. The habit of sifting through people’s garbage, lifting used tea bags and tampons off fragments of a love letter. And then of course the great doorstep confrontation, where the object of attention is caught off guard by the eager beaver reporter who asks whether it’s true that they have been sleeping with their best friend’s wife, or ripping off a few pensioners. The stuff of many movies.

The NoW would have described its practices as “investigative journalism”. But for me that phrase refers to a kind of journalism with which, if I was a journalist, I would be proud to be associated. After all, where would we be without Russell Crowe bringing his friend the corrupt congressman to justice in State of Play? Or the real-life Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who exposed Richard Nixon’s complicity in Watergate?

But to compare the work of the Watergate duo with the sludge-dredging indulged in by the British tabloids is akin to comparing Barcelona’s football team with a bunch of lump-kickers in a municipal cow field.

So apart from taking a rich seam of titillation off the market, and giving us an excuse to rage against the media, will the demise of Murdoch’s muck-sheet change the lives of the average Brit?

I doubt it. Other newspapers will fill the void. And besides, any celeb who doesn’t PIN-protect their phone today has to be either stupid or an exhibitionist. Phone hacking has become passé. The tabloids will find ever more ingenious ways of prising out secrets. The appetite for other people’s secrets will never go away, just as people will continue to gossip on their deathbeds. And we’re generally fine with that, just as long as it’s not our secrets they are talking about.  Julian Assange knows that as well as any tabloid news hound.

I for one feel distinctly unparanoid about those who would pry into my private life. Perhaps that’s because if you looked through my garbage, the most interesting exhibit you might find is the occasional evidence of untrammelled gluttony. If you want to hack my mobile phone, go for it. I hope you get prurient satisfaction from messages about golf games and missed meetings. Anyway, you won’t get far, because it’s long been PIN-protected.

That may be because over many years I have learned the rules of the privacy game. You won’t find my name and address on any paper thrown away for recycling. You will not find me in the midst of an orgy on Facebook. And if I want a private conversation, I filter my words through a mental privacy checker that takes into account all the people who could be listening to my phone call, monitoring my email or overhearing a face-to-face conversation.

None of this is because I have anything particular to hide. Some while ago it was revealed that contemporaries of mine such as Jack Straw, now a senior British politician, were under surveillance by the British security services when they were student activists. I was not surprised, because as long as I can remember I had a sense that even in “fair play Britain”, any of us could be being snooped on by any number of entities far more potent than some tabloid sewer rat, and that there’s little most of us can do about it.

And since I sometimes visit countries whose surveillance policies are far more arbitrary and opaque than those of the United Kingdom, I have developed an inbuilt caution about what I say, when I say it and where I say it. The danger is not so much what you say or do, but how it might be interpreted – or misinterpreted.

There was a period after 9/11 when I got the third degree – special treatment, in other words – whenever I entered the US. Why? I can only surmise that some immigration official looked at all the Middle East stamps on my passport, entered a code on a database somewhere, and for a while after, this white, middle aged guy gets hauled to a corner, has his hand luggage searched and is groped in areas normally only the preserve of his wife.

This is the world we live in. Am I offended? No. Do I feel threatened? Not particularly. And would I be grateful if the same surveillance stopped another 9/11, 7/7 or massacre in Oslo? Yes.

But if I was the Dowler family, I would be deeply offended and more at the intrusion, official and freelance, into their privacy. Even if some private matters came to light in the course of a legitimate police investigation, the UK legal system should never have allowed them to become public knowledge once it was clear that no member of her family was under suspicion for Milly’s murder.

As for Rupert Murdoch, he did a good job of convincing us in the recent parliamentary hearings that he was a clapped-out, much diminished 80-year old. His son came over as a diligent corporate apparatchik, far from the man his father is, or was. Yet Murdoch still controls a media empire that encompasses the rational – The Times, BSkyB, the Wall Street Journal – and the rabid – The Sun newspaper in the UK  (the NoW’s former sister daily) and Fox News in the US (the platform for such eminently objective figures as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck).

Which makes you wonder about his values. A self-confessed libertarian – a title that can be interpreted in many ways – his career suggests that he is one of those individuals whose value system is subordinate to the needs of his business, not the other way round. How otherwise could a man own both the Times and the News of the World? And how would you explain his support for such diverse political figures as Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Barack Obama and the Republican Governors’ Association? I don’t doubt that he lives by a set of personal values in his private life. But whatever they are, they don’t seem much in evidence in his business life.

Murdoch is a man of his times. He jumped on an opportunity to create a transnational empire by riding the tide of globalisation. His time will soon be over. Other Murdochs will take his place. Those who call for greater regulation of global media empires are whistling in the wind. By and large, companies like News Corporation will be continue to do their business in the knowledge that no single state is strong enough to stop them from plying their trade wherever a financial, legislative or political regime best suits them.

And the rest of us will continue to be snooped on, lied to and manipulated, not only by organisations like Murdoch’s, but also from time to time by our own governments. Conversely, those same entities will sometimes entertain us, enlighten us and improve our lives. Just occasionally, a Watergate scandal or the suffering of a bereaved family will put the brake on things getting too out of hand, and cause us to think about the impact on us of media and government, rather than simply go with the flow.

The demise of the News of the World may not be much consolation to the Dowlers. But it will certainly remind other media moguls that they can sometimes be held to account for placing the interests of their business ahead of their personal morality. Or at the very least, it will encourage them to become more aware of what their businesses are doing in their names.

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