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UK phone hacking breaks open the box: what’s next?

News Corporation has been rocked by the latest phone hacking disclosure that its UK Sunday tabloid the News of the World was responsible in 2002 for hacking into the mobile phone of the murdered British teenager Milly Dowler and even, possibly, obstructing police investigations by deleting voicemail messages, when it was considered possible she might still be alive.

One reason for the louder-than-ever jangling of alarms in the UK and US is the executive now clearly in the spotlight: Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade), UK chief of News Corp and one-time editor of the News of the World. Andy Coulson (former media advisor to UK prime Minister David Cameron) was her deputy editor. They appeared together at earlier Parliamentary hearings when Ms Brooks asserted that they had (illegally) paid the UK police for information. She belatedly withdrew the apparent indiscretion, but has been much quicker to deny personal knowledge of this latest explosive allegation.

Ms Brooks and her predecessor as CEO Les Hinton (now New York-based, in charge of News Corp’s Wall Street Journal, and one of Rupert Murdoch’s closest longterm confidantes) will have plenty of serious talking to do during Hinton’s breeze through London this morning (Tuesday). He’s probably carrying hot instructions and messages from the boss. Her  shocked-sounding message to staff denying knowledge of the Dowler hacking was issued not yesterday, when the story broke, but midday today. Perhaps it was my imagination, but some of the email (reminding staff of what made her proud about her editorship of the News of the World) could have come straight from a farewell message. Just wait.

Given the issues of corporate governance that this whole scandal raises for News Corp, it is perhaps instructive to highlight how coverage in The Times has variously managed to use subtle “mitigations” in its coverage of the story enveloping its parent company. These have included the following statements:

  • Other newspapers have also been accused of phone hacking. But, if this is true (and the Daily Mirror has been cited), it appears to have been nowhere near the scale of phone hacking carried out systematically by the News of the World. It is clear that the hacking extended well beyond the Royals, a fact that should have been evident to News Corp management which settled expensively with Gordon Taylor, the distinctly non-Royal chief of the Professional Footballers Association. How easily fooled James Murdoch must be!
  • Rebekah Brooks had her own mobile phone hacked – by the News of the World (no detail provided).
  • There are 50 detectives now engaged in the police investigation “including officers seconded from rape and murder units”. This seems intended to convey the impression that the long-delayed investigation is disproportionate and is detracting from other police work.
  • News Corp was responsible for “restarting” the investigations in January. This followed a series of expensive (up to £1m each) out-of-court settlements by News Corp, legal actions, parliamentary questions, and digging by The Guardian. The reports contradicted sustained claims that phone hacking had all been down to one lone News of the World reporter, jailed in 2007 for cracking into Royal mobiles.
  • News Corp’s UK subsidiary is co-operating fully with the police on this latest disclosure. But, given that these disclosures are linked to payments by News Corp to a retained private investigator, their own internal enquiries may  not have been pro-active or exhaustive. The Milly Dowler allegations have followed others made in Parliament last week about two other murdered girls (Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman) in the Lincolnshire village of Soham. These latest allegations seem to have been readily accepted by News Corp with no sense of irony or explanation of why it has taken a police investigation to uncover them nine years later.
  • A £15m fund was established by News Corp in April for settling legal claims. This is likely to prove woefully inadequate, especially if the practice of phone hacking was taking place for more than five years and involved a very wide group of victims. The Times chose not to note, in its reporting today, that these 2002 allegations mean that phone hacking was in operation for much longer than previously admitted – and was probably more systemic.
James Murdoch said in April that the phone hacking problem had been put “in a box”. That box has now been broken open.