Last night the Guardian newspaper came out with some explosive allegations here in the UK, and the evening news broadcasts were scrambling to unravel a scandal that could ensnare David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch and Scotland Yard all at once.
The Guardian article alleges that British newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. have paid £1 million in settlements to people who have had their phones hacked by private investigators hired by the company. The story alleges that such criminal activity was ‘systemic’ at News Corp’s British papers, particularly at News of the World and, to a lesser extent, the Sun. And all of this was going on during the editorship of Andy Coulson, who was recently hired as the Communications Director for Conservative leader David Cameron.
The list of people who had their phones hacked is wide and varied, representing the papers’ multi-faceted role of covering celebrity gossip, sports and politics using the same methods. Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Nigella Lawson were hacked along with former deputy prime minister John Prescott and former culture secretary Tessa Jowell.
There are a number of important questions raised here that could have big ramifications. One, did News Corp have a widespread, top-down policy of hacking phones, and then pay to cover up evidence of this policy once it was discovered by police? Two, was Scotland Yard coerced into dropping the investigation after discovering the evidence of widespread bugging? And three, what does it say about the Conservatives’ media strategy that they have hired a communications director that engages in these kind of practices?
Back in 2007, a News of the World reporter named Clive Goodman was convicted and jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of three members of staff for the royal family. News Corp assured parliament at the time that this was a one-off incident, calling Goodman a ‘rogue reporter’. But a source at Scotland Yard told the Guardian that during their inquiry investigators found evidence that News Corp staff had hacked into “thousands” of mobile phones using private investigators.
The investigation they’re referring to came after the Goodman case was exposed. It’s a bit unclear what happened, but it would appear that the Goodman case prompted the police to investigate other reporters at News of the World, evidence of widespread phone bugging was discovered, and some of the victims were informed by the police and others were not. It appears that none of the political victims were informed, but several of the sports and entertainment figures were. One of the figures who was told, Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor, sued News of the World. According to the Guardian, the company paid Taylor a £700,000 settlement with the stipulation that none of the information about the phone tampering could go public.
The idea that a newspaper would pay a settlement to keep something hidden from the media is pretty shocking. But what’s perhaps more shocking is that, faced with this allegedly overwhelming evidence that criminal activity was taking place, the police chose not to investigate it further or inform the victims. Considering that many of the victims were cabinet-level political figures, this seems downright bizarre.
It appears quite possible from the Guardian’s report that Andy Coulson was, if not directly involved with the strategy of hacking people’s phones, complicit in it by looking the other way. This may create a big headache for David Cameron, who’s decision to hire Coulson as the Tories’ mouthpiece was quite controversial, given his tabloid background. Cameron has been surprisingly cavalier about it so far. When the news broke last night his spokesperson said Cameron was “very relaxed” about the story. Then this morning, speaking outside his home in west London he said: "It's wrong for newspapers to breach people's privacy with no justification. That is why Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World two-and-a-half years ago… Of course I knew about that resignation before offering him the job. But I believe in giving people a second chance.”
Cameron seems to be suggesting that that because Coulson resigned following the Goodman conviction (which he claimed was a one-off he had no knowledge of), new information that shows he actually presided over a more wide-spread policy of hacking is irrelevant. This is a strange argument to make, and I have a feeling his “second chance” line is going to come back to haunt him as questions about his judgement arise. The BBC is already reporting that the Tories are getting increasingly nervous about this as the day goes on.
Given that Cameron is frequently derided as a “spin-meister” who is all showmanship and little substance, the news that he’s hired a tabloid news editor who is accused of presiding over a newsroom that systematically hacked people’s phones to drudge up dirt on them is probably the last thing he needs for his image. Much like Tony Blair’s PR guru Alistair Campbell before him, Coulson has now “become the story” in a way that is never good for any PR man.
The Guardian is providing a live feed of the developments in this matter as the day goes on. It will certainly be interesting to watch.