Britain falls in the gutter

The world’s most competitive and sleazy newspaper market suffers a crisis of its own making

Britain falls in the gutterIt is the best of times, it is the worst of times, for the British press today.

In a news week that transfixed the world, sending shock waves from the lowest gutter press to the country’s highest office, power brokers were arrested, police and politicians held to account, and a profitable and historied newspaper destroyed. Today, the future of both the British media and its most powerful press baron, Rupert Murdoch, hang in the balance. What began as a scandal that had been simmering on low boil for half a decade suddenly became a full-blown crisis when the Guardian revealed what police had apparently known for years: that the private voice mail of teenaged murder victim Milly Dowler had been hacked into by tabloid journalists from the News of the World before her parents even knew she was dead.

This revelation, coupled with the news that other victims may have included the families of dead British troops, was the catalyst that upped the stakes in what is now, without question, the biggest British news story of the year. The term “phone hacking,” formerly synonymous with the privacy infringement of celebrities and politicians (neither of whom get much love from the media-jaundiced British public), was suddenly a matter of serious public interest and moral outcry.

Within hours, public pressure began to mount for Rebekah Brooks, who runs the British newspaper subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp. and is a former News of the World editor, to resign. When she refused, backed by the support of her boss, the advertising boycott began. [UPDATE: Brooks has since resigned.] Big companies like Ford, T-Mobile, Orange and Halifax began pulling their ads, calling into question the future of the weekly Sunday tabloid. Murdoch’s reaction was immediate and characteristically ruthless: he announced he was closing down the publication, a 168-year-old paper with over 200 editorial employees, which had, until recently, been the highest-circulation paper in Britain at 2.6 million.

In many ways, it’s the ultimate media process piece; a story created, wrought and detonated by the viciously adversarial and scoop-driven British press. But what will it mean for the future of the world’s most competitive print media market, a place where well over a dozen national print dailies and weeklies—from the “news and screws” tabloids to the so-called “quality press”—still duke it out on the newsstands? The outcome will depend largely on what is revealed in the coming months.

In a statement last week, Prime Minister David Cameron announced there would be not one but two government inquiries into the scandal. The first, to start once the police investigation is finished, will be a judge-led inquiry focusing on phone hacking at News of the World as well as the failure of police to properly investigate the crimes. A second would look into the ethics and culture of the national press. Cameron added that he wants the Press Complaints Commission, Britain’s independent body that self-regulates the press, to be scrapped, declaring, “We need a new system entirely.” He is right, but many British journalists now fear this will culminate in much tougher regulations following the prime minister’s proposal for a regulatory body that is independent of both government and media.

While Cameron has done his best to take hold of the issue, he is hardly above the fray. Even as the scandal flared, his government kept pushing for the approval of News Corp.’s proposed buyout of British Sky Broadcasting Group. Only after Opposition leader Ed Miliband’s push for a vote in the House of Commons calling on Murdoch to withdraw the Sky bid gained supporters did the PM reluctantly agree on Tuesday to support the motion.

To make matters worse, Cameron’s disgraced ex-communications chief Andy Coulson (and former News of the World editor) was arrested last Friday for his involvement in phone hacking. In the same press conference, Cameron denied receiving “any specific information” about Coulson’s alleged activities when he hired him. However, since then, various sources—including former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown—have said publicly they warned Cameron in advance that hiring Coulson would prove disastrous (the PM accepted Coulson’s resignation after defending him for weeks earlier this year).

Members of London’s Metropolitan Police, who have been widely criticized for their refusal to keep pursuing phone hacking allegations, have also expressed regret. Police assistant commissioner John Yates, who believes his own phone was hacked, called his force’s handling of the affair “a cock-up,” and said his 2009 decision not to reopen the case on what he called “industrial-scale” hacking was not just unwise but “pretty crap.” So far only two people have been jailed, private investigator Glen Mulcaire and former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman in 2007—the hacking scandal started in 2005 when royal aides realized stories in the tabloid could have only come from messages taken directly from their phones—and even then only for a few months. (Goodman, however, was arrested again last week on suspicion of bribing police for information.)

Now, however, the police seem determined to make up for lost time. Hundreds of thousands of documents, including internal News of the World emails, have been seized, and more journalists are likely to be arrested in an investigation that has so far identified 4,000 potential hacking victims. There are also allegations the tabloid paid huge sums to police officers in return for information. The scandal is expanding to include other Murdoch papers—former prime minister Gordon Brown claims the Sun used “known criminals” to get personal information, including his son’s medical records. The investigation is expected to extend its reach beyond Murdoch’s empire—no one who has ever dug dirt in Britain’s gutter press is safe. Phone hacking, while obviously epidemic at News of the World, is believed to have been common practice among most U.K. tabloids, a culture in which getting the scoop, no matter how sordid, factually tenuous or illegally obtained, has long been the dominant guiding principle.

But the demise of News of the World is more than just a story about a bunch of hacks hacking. Instead, it’s about the way one small island’s power elite colluded to protect the Murdoch firm—and each other—despite the illegalities involved. As the Guardian’s senior reporter Nick Davies put it on his video blog last week, “It’s evident from the way the police, the Press Complaints Commission and some politicians automatically backed off and said, ‘Let’s not cause trouble, they might hurt us,’ that [Murdoch] already had too much power. It seems to me highly unlikely that it would be in the interests of our greater society to give that too powerful group more power.”

The final edition of News of the World sold out all 4.5 million copies across Britain on Sunday, reaching the highest sales figures the tabloid has seen since 1998. “Thank you and Goodbye” read the cover of what was, by and large, an unabashedly sentimental review of the paper’s finest moments. (Its many journalistic lows, including countless kiss-and-tells and the notorious exposé of a soap star’s psychiatric treatment, which later culminated in his suicide, were conveniently ignored.) An anonymous attack published in the Mail on Sunday by a “Murdoch insider” voiced the widely held feeling that hundreds of jobs have been sacrificed in the effort to protect the career of one woman: Rebekah Brooks. “Throughout her career, she has had one aim only: self-glorification,” the writer declared venomously. “She used the papers to promote her own interests, not to break stories or to entertain.”

Even her friend and weekend riding partner, David Cameron, admitted that he would have accepted her resignation were it offered to him.

Murdoch, evidently, does not agree. His show of fatherly support over the weekend made it clear that Brooks, who will likely face police and parliamentary questioning in the coming weeks, is safe for now. Emerging from his flat after a crisis meeting, Murdoch put his arm around Brooks as he walked her to his car. When asked by reporters what his top priority was, he gestured to Brooks and said, “This one.” One another occasion, he remarked of Brooks, “I’m not throwing innocent people under the bus.” The 200 journalists who’ve suddenly found themselves jobless this week would probably disagree.

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