The Phone-Hacking Scandal: British Politics Transformed?
Simanowitz, Stefan, Contemporary Review
WATCHING the octogenarian Rupert Murdoch arrive for his appearance before the Parliamentary select committee hearings in July, I was reminded of a wildlife documentary I once saw in which the alpha male of a chimpanzee community was challenged for dominance by a younger ape. The older chimp was soundly beaten by the young pretender and as he limped off into the jungle to lick his wounds, the rest of the troop - including some of his own offspring - descended on him, tearing him limb from limb. It seemed that day as if Murdoch might face a similar fate. Wounded by the loss of his closest lieutenants - Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks, the humiliating collapse of his BSkyB bid, the falling price of News Corp shares, and a wave of public outrage it seemed that both Murdoch's enemies and his former friends might turn on him. Broadsheet newspapers backed by the 'feral beasts' of the tabloids were closing in and politicians who had always trembled and fawned at his feet looked as if they might join the kill.
However Murdoch's 'humble old man' performance before a largely lacklustre panel of MPs combined with some swift damage limitation exercises by News Corp's public relations company were effective. Apologies were made, people were sacked, a newspaper was shut down, and multi-million pound pay-outs were made to some of the phone hacking victims. The company's share price stabilised and Murdoch lived to fight another day. But the story did not go away. New aspects of the scandal are being unearthed by journalists, detectives and inquiry panels on both sides of the Atlantic. As the inquiries progress and the extent of the criminality, corruption and complicity is revealed the public and political classes will be forced to confront some deeply unpleasant realities. This in turn could lead to a significant transformation of the British political landscape.
The 'phone-hacking scandal' refers to the systematic hacking of phones belonging to politicians, celebrities, members of the public and even the police but it is about much more than the unlawful intercepts of voicemails. It is also about illegal payments made to police officers, attempts to pervert the course of justice and exert undue influence over politicians. It raises issues about press regulation, media ownership, and the nature of the relationship between our journalists, police, and politicians. The scandal is not restricted to one newspaper, one media company or even one country. Instead the tentacles of this scandal stretch deep into the very heart of how global corporate power works.
The facts of the case are not easy to sum up since they stretch back almost a decade and spill out in many directions. The scandal first entered the public consciousness in August 2006 when the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, were arrested over allegations that they hacked into the mobile phones in the Royal household. They both admitted to plotting to intercept communications and Mulcaire also pleaded guilty to five other charges of unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages. They received short jail terms and the newspaper's editor, Andy Coulson, resigned whilst at the same time denying all knowledge of phone-hacking activity.
An internal News of the World (NoW) investigation following the court case found no evidence of widespread hacking at the paper concluding that Goodman was a single 'rogue reporter'. The Press Complaints Commission, an independent body overseeing the self-regulation of the press, supported this view in their 2007 report on the matter.
Following the guilty pleas, Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers Association made a claim for breach of privacy against the NoW relating to the alleged hacking of his phone. His claim was settled out of court for [pounds sterling] 700,000; this payment, it later emerged, had been approved by James Murdoch. …