Insufficiently robust: Murdoch issues a mea culpa on phone hacking

There’s a joke doing the rounds. A banker, a Daily Mail reader and an income support claimant are sitting round a table. There are 12 biscuits on a plate. The banker takes 11 and tells the Daily Mail reader, “You want to be careful, that scrounger’s after your biscuit.” The Mail has got a lot of biscuits of its own, selling over two million copies a day as does its Sunday edition. Only two British papers sell more (the Sun 2.7 million and the News of the World at 2.6) and they both belong to Rupert Murdoch.

(photo Reuters)

The latest sales figures show the circulation of all four papers is going down, however the News publications were experiencing a greater decline. The Sun has to try harder to read a more diffuse audience than the Tory Mail. The last survey of readership by voting intention in 2004 showed over twice as many Tory voters than Labour read the Mail but the Sun had a 41-31 preference of Labour voters.

Murdoch’s publications can’t take a reflexive pro-Tory line without alienating its own readers. Far easier than stealing biscuits is an apolitical ration of tits, titillation and celebrity gossip. The News of the World’s attempts to get inside access to the gossip fueling their pages has ended up in the courts and a criminal investigation. There is likely to be impact to Murdoch’s pockets in a case that has already had one high-profile casualty, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spinner-in-chief Andy Coulson.

Coulson was editor of the News of the World in 2006 when police exposed its phone hacking practices. Coulson denies he knew about it, making him a liar or a fool. The only employee who has admitted guilt is former royal reporter Clive Goodman. Goodman had a reputation for scoops and held the paper’s record for the highest number of consecutive front-page leads. His thirst for inside information led him to hack private phone messages.

He hired private investigator Glenn Mulcaire to help him. Mulcaire managed to access message bank pin codes. Royal aides were confused when they found unread messages in their inbox appearing as already read. When Goodman reported unusual information about the Royals only a handful was privy to, the royal household got the counter-terrorism branch of Scotland Yard involved. Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested on 8 August and police raided newspaper offices for evidence. Goodman pleaded guilty to intercepting phone messages when he faced court in January 2007. He got four months jail. As Justice Gross said in sentencing the case was not about press freedom, “it was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy.” Coulson resigned two weeks earlier. Goodman’s departure wasn’t formally announced until the 25th when Mulcaire also pleaded guilty and got six months. Police found a hit list of other celebrities in his diary; celebrities not normally covered by Goodman in his royal round, but they did little with this information.

The News of the World hid behind the ‘rotten apple’ and ‘rogue reporter’ defence. It would take two years before the world would learn the tentacles went further than Goodman. Three phone companies told The Guardian 100 of their customers’ pin codes were compromised, contradicting earlier police and News of the World claims about a “handful”. The Guardian said they included Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and PR guru Max Clifford while Coulson was aware of the tapping. By then the Tories were in power and Coulson was Cameron’s right hand man. With Labour calling for his head, ConservativeHome.com blog editor Tim Montgomerie asked how many times did Andy Coulson have to resign for the affair. Twice was the answer, as he left the government job in January 2011.

The net was widening at NOTW. MPs on a culture, media and sport select committee accused News Limited executives of “collective amnesia, ignorance, lack of recall and deliberate obfuscation” and said it was inconceivable no one else knew about the hacking. Several victims took the paper to court and won substantial out of court settlements preventing discussion of the affair. Max Clifford won $1m but the list of journalists involved was not read out in the court.

In September 2010, parliamentary committee chair John Whittingdale told the New York Times Scotland Yard had no enthusiasm for the investigation. “To start exposing widespread tawdry practices in that newsroom was a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift,” Whittingdale said. A former reporter told NYT the News of the World had a “do whatever it takes” mentality under Coulson and said the then editor was present during discussions about the practice.

With Coulson denying the claim under oath it has been difficult to mount a criminal prosecution. Metropolitan Police re-opened the investigation following “significant new information”. However it has been left to the aggrieved to take action in civil courts. Sky Andrews, Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, Chris Tarrant and Andy Gray have all taken legal action against the paper.

Desperate to avoid the crime being revealed in open court, Rupert Murdoch was finally forced to take decisive action. On Thursday he apologised to eight victims and admitted the practice was rife at the News of the World. Murdoch said internal investigations into the matter were not “sufficiently robust” and has offered unreserved apologies to some victims (though it continues to fight allegations by Coogan and jockey Kieren Fallon). Murdoch is said to have offered up to a million pounds, some are expecting the bill to reach £40m. With new evidence there might have been up to 3,000 people on Mulcaire’s lists, there may be a lot of people after Murdoch’s biscuits. The question becomes how high a price is Murdoch prepared to pay to avoid the court making public the reasons why their internal investigation wasn’t sufficiently robust.

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