British tabloids have a reputation for crude, even boorish, news-gathering methods that see them routinely hauled up before the courts. In 2006, the Information Commissioner named more than 300 journalists who had illegally obtained material for their stories. Even so The Guardian’s investigation into how individuals working for the News of the World — the largest-selling daily in the United Kingdom and regarded as one of the jewels of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — used “criminal methods” to get information has shocked people, including those who have had prolonged experience of redtop horrors. There was a wholesale violation of privacy and data protection laws with journalists hiring private detectives to hack into mobile phone messages of “thousands” of people, including prominent politicians and celebrities, to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data. And when caught out, the newspaper reportedly paid out more than £1 million in damages to at least three victims on condition they signed a “gagging clause.” According to The Guardian, many celebrities and public figures “who believe they may have been victims of phone hacking have been consulting lawyers over possible actions against the News of the World.” At a time when public interest in the Fourth Estate is low, the developing scandal will only reinforce perceptions of media dangerously out of control.
Mr. Murdoch and his company have denied any knowledge of the dirty tricks and the payments, suggesting that it was a case of “rogue operators” acting on their own. Given the scale of the operation, however, many independent observers find it inconceivable that senior NoW executives would not have known anything. For the Tories, the scandal has acquired an awkward political tinge: the party leader David Cameron’s Director of Communications, Andy Coulson, is a former NoW Editor. He was forced to resign in 2007 when one of his reporters, Clive Goodman, was jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of three royal staff. Many of the “illegal acts” exposed by The Guardian took place when he was still working for the NoW. Surprisingly, police have ruled out an investigation on the ground that no fresh evidence has surfaced after the Goodman prosecution. But in a significant intervention, the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to review new evidence. There will also be two other separate inquiries — one by a parliamentary committee, another by the Press Complaints Commission. Independent of the legal outcomes, restoring public trust in British tabloid journalism will now be extremely difficult.