writes about the business press for Columbia Journalism Review's "The Audit". He has been closely following Rupert Murdoch's News of the World hacking scandal.
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is engulfed in a growing scandal after new evidence emerged that his reporters in Britain paid corrupt police officers for story tips and hacked the voicemails of thousands of people, from child murder victims to the families of Britain’s war dead. On Thursday, Murdoch shocked the country by shutting down the newspaper at the center of the scandal, the News of the World, Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper. Founded in 1843, the tabloid’s final edition will be this weekend. Earlier today, one former reporter for the paper, Andy Coulson, was arrested on corruption and phone-hacking charges. Until January, Coulson served as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s director of communications. Meanwhile, Murdoch is attempting to pull off a $12 billion takeover of the television network, British Sky Broadcasting. But today, Britain’s culture secretary announced its decision on the Sky deal will be delayed because of the ongoing scandal. We speak to Ryan Chittum, who has been writing about the scandal for the Columbia Journalism Review. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is engulfed in a growing scandal after new evidence emerged that his reporters in Britain paid corrupt police officers for story tips and hacked the voicemails of thousands of people, from child murder victims to politicians, to the families of British soldiers killed in war.
On Thursday, Murdoch shocked the country by shutting down the newspaper at the center of the scandal, the News of the World, Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper. The paper was founded in 1843. Its final edition will be this weekend.
Earlier today, one of the former journalists at the paper, Andy Coulson, was arrested on corruption and phone-hacking charges. Coulson’s arrest has put the British prime minister, David Cameron, in the spotlight. Up until January, Coulson was Cameron’s director of communications. Cameron hired him despite allegations that he played a key role in the phone hacking for Murdoch.
AMY GOODMAN: Details about the phone-hacking scandal have been known for years, but public outcry intensified earlier this week when The Guardian newspaper revealed that in 2002, journalists working for Murdoch hacked the voicemail of a missing teenage girl named Milly Dowler while police were looking for her. She was later found murdered. An investigator from News of the World reportedly listened into and deleted messages for the cell phone of this 13-year-old girl. The actions of the journalist hampered the police investigation of the girl’s death and gave false hope to her family that she was alive.
The investigative journalist Nick Davies of The Guardian has broken several of the key stories on the scandal. In this video posted on The Guardian’s website, Davies talks about the Milly Dowler case.
NICK DAVIES: We at The Guardian got hold of two separate sources who told us independently that one of the victims of this illegal voicemail hacking was the 13-year-old Surrey schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, who we now know was abducted and murdered. And we discovered that during the period of time when she was missing, and there was no explanation for what had happened to her, that the News of the World were using a private investigator to listen to her voicemail. Now, that, in itself, was horrid, because you’re talking about a period when her friends and family are calling her on her mobile phone and are terribly worried about her, and they’re imploring her to come home, and they’re crying on the phone, and it’s deeply personal stuff. And here are the News of the World listening to it. That feels wrong. But where it then got worse was that the voicemail box on Milly’s phone filled up. The News of the World were hungry for more information, for more stories, so they intervened and deleted the messages. Well, of course, for the family and friends who were calling in and who had heard that the voicemail box was full, suddenly it wasn’t full anymore. So, naturally enough, they concluded that Milly herself had deleted her messages. Therefore, she was still alive. And she wasn’t.
The Milly Dowler story changed the politics of the whole saga, and it made it really impossible for anybody to defend the News of the World, and that included the Prime Minister and the Tory leadership. And so, they’ve, so to speak, switched sides. They’ve switched sides specifically on the question of whether or not there should be a public inquiry. And David Cameron, in fact, announced not just one, but two public inquiries. One into the long-term and shocking failure of the Metropolitan Police to get anywhere close to telling the truth about this until very recently, and the second is into the misbehavior of the News of the World and the media generally.
I think it’s reasonable for any of us to observe that the Murdoch corporation has too much power. It’s evident from the way in which the police, the Press Complaints Commission and some politicians automatically backed off and said, "Let’s not cause trouble. They might hurt us." But they already had too much power when all this was going on. It seems to me highly unlikely that it could be in the interest of our society as a whole to give that too powerful group yet more power.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was reporter Nick Davies of The Guardian newspaper.
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is being shaken at a time when he is attempting to pull off a $12 billion takeover of the TV network British Sky Broadcasting. Earlier today, Britain’s culture secretary announced that the decision on the Sky deal will be delayed because of the ongoing scandal.
It’s unclear what impact the British scandal will have on Murdoch’s U.S. media holdings, which include the Fox TV network, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones and Company, HarperCollins, and the 20th Century Fox film studio.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the scandal, we’re joined by Ryan Chittum in Seattle. He writes about the business press for Columbia Journalism Review’s "The Audit."
So, lay this out. This story is remarkable. It has been unfolding for years and involves everything, including a guy being paid off—they talk about corrupt police officials—who in fact was a suspected axe murderer, to hack these phone mails. Explain what’s going on Ryan.
RYAN CHITTUM: Yeah, as you said, this has been unfolding for years. It really became a big story in 2009, when Nick Davies, who we just heard, broke the news that News Corporation had paid off some of the victims of the phone hacking in order to keep them from pressing charges and investigating further what had gone on. He broke that, and it still wasn’t a big story in the British press. You know, the other tabloid papers didn’t follow it. It’s kind of been a lonely journey for Nick Davies and The Guardian over the past two years. They’ve had some help, you know, from papers like The Independent and the BBC and then, you know, the New York Times even in the U.S.. But the Milly Dowler thing is what really took this to another level. It exploded it into a huge story that nobody could ignore, including the Murdoch papers, like The Times of London, The Sun, you know, the Wall Street Journal.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the fact that David Cameron hired as a communications secretary one of the former editors at the center of this scandal, could you talk about this incestuous relationship between key officials of the Murdoch empire in Britain and the Murdoch family itself, and both the Conservatives and the Labour Party leaders in Britain over these many years?
RYAN CHITTUM: Right, Andy Coulson was the editor of the News of the World, not during the Milly Dowler case—he was deputy then—but during most of the hacking allegations. And David Cameron knew when he hired him that News of the World had some sort of trouble. He, you know, clearly didn’t know the extent of the trouble. But the editor of The Guardian sent word that Coulson was involved in some of these other things, and Cameron just denied that this morning.
But I think the big story here, beyond the criminality of this newsroom and what it says about the culture of News Corporation, which is the biggest and most important media company in the world, is what it says about the power of that company and media consolidation. Murdoch owns some one-third of the newspapers in Britain, and like the second-biggest TV proprietor, so he has a huge impact on that society. And what this scandal has exposed is police corruption, government corruption, media cooperation. You know, it’s really kind of a revealing story about how media consolidation can be a corrupting factor in society.
AMY GOODMAN: Ryan, we want you to give us the chronology of how all this unfolded, but first, let’s play Rupert Murdoch’s son, James Murdoch, what he has to say, News International’s chairman. This scandal has thrust him into the role of crisis manager. In an interview with U.K. Telegraph, James Murdoch defends his colleague Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International. He also blames the scandal on a few rogue actors.
JAMES MURDOCH: Fundamentally, actions taken a number of years ago by certain individuals in what had been a good newsroom have breached the trust that the News of the World has with its readers. I am satisfied that Rebekah, her leadership of this business, and her standard of ethics and her standard of conduct throughout her career are very good. And I think what she’s shown and what we have shown with our actions around transparently and proactively working with the police—recall, it’s the process of information discovery that we went through, proactively and voluntarily, that actually started these investigations to be opened again by the police earlier this year. You know, I am satisfied that she neither had knowledge of nor directed those activities.
AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Chittum, your response? Talk about the significance, her significance. Was this scandal investigated only because News International internally took the initiative? Where does she fit into the story, and what does she mean also for Fox’s global empire, including media in the United States?
RYAN CHITTUM: No, that’s completely false, and you can’t believe a word these people say at this point, if you ever could. I mean, this story came out because of reporting by The Guardian almost exclusively, and Nick Davies. And the push for investigations by victims of the hacking scandal didn’t come about because of News Corporation, who tried to cover it up at every point. You know, it’s just ridiculous.
Rebekah Brooks, when she was editor of the News of the World — I mean, think about this. She had an axe murder suspect on her payroll—Rupert Murdoch did—hacking the phones of people, violating their privacy. She’ll say she didn’t know that they were doing these illegal activities, but as anybody who’s worked in journalism knows, especially somebody who’s had power, you don’t let something in the paper, sensitive things, unless you know where it came from. So, it’s implausible that she didn’t know this stuff. And the same with Andy Coulson, who’s now under arrest. I suspect Brooks will be before too long.
AMY GOODMAN: Andy Coulson, the former spokesperson for Cameron, the prime minister of Britain.
RYAN CHITTUM: Right. This is—I mean, imagine Robert Gibbs, you know, Obama’s spokesperson, if he was under arrest now for these widespread crimes committed under his watch. I mean, it’s just—it’s an amazing story.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the fact that this investigator was on the payroll, I think at 100,000 pounds a year, you would think that some editor would at least question, "Hey, what’s this? What are we paying this guy to do?" As you say, it seems—
RYAN CHITTUM: Well, right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —completely inconceivable that the editors would not know what was going on in this situation. And if they didn’t know, they should be fired for not knowing that there was a criminal operation within their newsroom.
RYAN CHITTUM: Well, another fascinating—right, a fascinating thing that’s come out this week about Rebekah Brooks is that back in 2002, they had News of the World resources, a van, a couple journalists, tail the lead detective on that axe murder case, who was—it was a 15-year-old case. They reopened it. He went on the TV, and then the News of the World had him followed. Now, they were caught following him after the detective called Scotland Yard. And they said, "Oh, we’re investigating whether he’s having an affair with a news anchor." He had been married to her for five or six years, had a couple kids, so totally bogus. Scotland Yard went to Rebekah Brooks, complained. She fought them back. They never did anything about it. She never did anything about it, continued to employ this guy. So, the idea that they’re saying that she didn’t know what was going on is just—it’s ludicrous. She may have not known all the details, but she knew—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, and this whole situation—
RYAN CHITTUM: She created the culture that was going on.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the police involvement in this, and that the newspaper was paying police for internal documents or records. The degree to which police officials—and the investigation that needs to be conducted within law enforcement on this cozy relationship of actually getting paid bribes to release documents to a particular newspaper.
RYAN CHITTUM: Right, and this is part of that corruption of society, you know, with the media consolidation I was talking about earlier. I mean, the police were—not only had people on the take from News Corp., but, you know, they were afraid of Murdoch. They had this symbiotic relationship with the News of the World, where they would leak things to it, and the News of the World would drum up sympathy for police cases and against alleged criminals. And they didn’t want to damage that relationship. So, you had that going on, and probably they knew that some of their people were on the take. They didn’t want that exposed. So, between those two factors, and Lord knows what else, they covered it up. I mean, the investigation that they had into this was a joke, with this widespread criminality going on. And the News of the World didn’t even hide this. Its competitors did some of it, but it was most systematic. But, you know, you could read the paper and see that there was no other way that they could have gotten these messages than hacking into them illegally.
AMY GOODMAN: Rupert Murdoch has remained noticeably silent on the hacking scandal. In a July 2009 interview with Fox News Business, the media mogul abruptly cut off an anchor who inquired about the controversy at News of the World.
STUART VARNEY: All around the country, and certainly here in New York, is that the News of the World, a News Corporation newspaper in Britain, used—
RUPERT MURDOCH: Uh, I’m not talking—I’m not talking about that issue at all today. Sorry.
STUART VARNEY: OK. No worries, Mr. Chairman.
AMY GOODMAN: There you go. Of course, Fox owned by Rupert Murdoch. Ryan Chittum?
RYAN CHITTUM: Yeah, that’s—oh, you know, I give credit to Stuart Varney for being bold enough to ask the question, but he did double back on it pretty quickly.
You know, I used to work for the Wall Street Journal. I left there a couple months before Murdoch took over. Nobody at that paper, which I think was a great paper, one of the best in the world—not including its editorial page—was fearful of Murdoch taking over, not—for me at the time, it was not even mostly because of that Murdoch would interfere with the news product—I didn’t think he would put naked women on page three—but that this kind of—you would be associated with this kind of person. This is the culture of News Corp. It’s well known. This is a particularly sick manifestation of it. But, you know, we were afraid of being associated with a guy like Murdoch, who has papers like News of the World that do things like this.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, interestingly, we—
RYAN CHITTUM: That would never happen at the Wall Street Journal.
JUAN GONZALEZ: There are now reports that Murdoch has appointed Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York school system, who went to work as a vice president at News Corporation, to conduct the internal investigation of the—that the company is going to continue now into what happened here. Do you have any faith of any kind of internal investigation of this type? Or even, how should the law enforcement investigation in England proceed, given the reality of some of the corruption in the key officials in government there that were linked to what was happening with News of the World?
RYAN CHITTUM: Well, I mean, this is—I don’t know how many internal investigations News Corp. has done, and they’ve never found anything. I mean, they’ve started to dribble out some things now. They’re trying to get in front of the PR wave, and they’ve failed. But, you know, Joel Klein is on the News Corp. payroll. He’s in line for a $5 million payday. I mean, this is—you know, this is not the type of guy who’s going to lead an independent investigation. And he answers to Murdoch. So, the only thing they could do is to hire some respected outside law firm or a kind of special prosecutor type person to do this. And, you know, they don’t want to do that, because they don’t want anything to come out that they don’t want to come out.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Andrew Coulson, the former spokesperson for Cameron who is now under arrest—
RYAN CHITTUM: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —former top editor at News of the World who resigned as editor in 2007 after the first chapter in the hacking scandal broke. Cameron, the British prime minister, a Conservative, later hired him to be his communications director. Coulson told a parliamentary panel in 2009 he had no recollection of incidences where phone hacking took place at News of the World.
ANDREW COULSON: I was, as you know, editor of the News of the World for four years, from January 2003 until January 2007. During that time, I never condoned the use of phone hacking, and nor do I have any recollection of incidences where phone hacking took place. My instructions to the staff were clear. We did not use subterfuge of any kind unless there was a clear public interest in doing so. They were to work within the PCC code at all times.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s British Prime Minister Cameron’s former spokesperson, now under arrest. Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner John Yates claimed he had ensured that the companies had contacted every celebrity and politician whose voicemails were hacked by a private detective working for the World. The four largest mobile phone companies in Britain have all denied Yates’ assertion. Yates addressed a parliamentary select committee hearings on phone hacking, saying there’s no new evidence in this story.
JOHN YATES: As I’ve said previously, there’s essentially nothing new in the story, other than to place in the public domain additional material that had already been considered by both the police investigation into Goodman and Mulcaire and by the CPS and the prosecution team. There was certainly no new evidence, and in spite of a huge amount of publicity and our request to The Guardian and others to submit to us any additional evidence, nothing has been forthcoming since.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s what Scotland Yard has to say. Ryan, as we wrap up, the number of people whose phones have been hacked, from Prince William to the actor Hugh Grant—who, by the way, has led an advertiser boycott of Murdoch’s empire, which has had a tremendous effect—also those who died in the 7/7 attacks, those who—the head of the National Footballers Association, who sued and had some mum deal where he got something, I don’t know, close to a million dollars, is this right? The head of the soccer league in Britain?
RYAN CHITTUM: Right, yeah. I mean, you’re talking about 4,000 people, they think, were hacked. Just systematic criminality, you know? I mean, then this comes—it’s not something that happens—this is not a rogue reporter, you know, which News Corp. tried to say for years. It’s not a consultant they hired that went off. You know, clearly, they knew these guys’ background. One was convicted of planting cocaine on a woman in a divorce dispute. This is a culture created by management. They’re responsible for it, even if they didn’t get their hands dirty in it. You know, this was a cutthroat newsroom, and they got what they wanted.
AMY GOODMAN: And now the newspaper is closed, News of the World, though as, Juan, you point out, doesn’t mean that, to say the least, they won’t have a Sunday paper in Britain.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Right, well, because, given the number of publications that Murdoch owns, he’s essentially rebranding himself, eliminating the damaged brand, and probably will move some of those reporters over now to one of his other papers. And there’s already talk that The Sun will now have a Sunday edition, so that basically he’s trying to ditch the bad apple, as he calls it, right now to save the rest of his empire and also to save his deal to be able to get complete ownership of Sky Broadcasting.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ryan Chittum, we want to thank you very much for—
RYAN CHITTUM: Well, he’s—yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Ryan.
RYAN CHITTUM: Well, he’s crafty, that one. You know, he tried to—he bought some domain names for The Sun on Sunday, two days before he announced that he was closing the News of the World. So, you can guess his intentions.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll continue to cover what it means for the Murdoch empire in the United States, everything from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Post to Fox. Ryan Chittum of Columbia Journalism Review, writes for the CJR_’s "Audit," thanks so much for being with us. We’ll link to your audit/">coverage.