Connecting the dots on UK press skulduggery
The circle of complicity in the UK phone hacking conspiracy is spiraling outward and upward, with the arrest yesterday of Rupert Murdoch’s protégée Rebekah Brooks and the resignation of Scotland Yard chief Paul Stephenson.
As the New York Times noted yesterday, Scotland Yard has been willfully negligent, if not actively collusive, in its investigation of the hacking into the phones of UK celebrities and crime victims by journalists at News of the World.
So far, the focus has been on NOTW and Murdoch’s hirelings and cronies. But isn’t it now obvious that the conspiracy to cover up the journalistic phone hacking probably goes far wider, implicating many members of the UK press itself?
While the UK press has slumbered, the aggressive reporting about phone hacking has been consistently led by US journalists, for example in the September 2010 investigative blast in the New York Times magazine.
As the Times reported then, “interviews with more than a dozen former reporters and editors at News of the World … described a frantic, sometimes degrading atmosphere in which some reporters openly pursued hacking or other improper tactics to satisfy demanding editors.”
Let’s assume that, at best, hacking was only perpetrated by NOTW journalists. That premise would still make hundreds of members of the UK press complicit in the hacking, since many either have once worked at NOTW and known about the hacking or had friends who worked there.
In an interview (below) before Brooks resigned, a TV journalist asks a spokesman for Newscorp, NOTW’s owner, whether Rebekah Brooks could honestly lead an investigation into actions that had occurred under her own watch as editor of NOTW. The spokesman shudders and stutters, trying to avoid saying the obvious: you can’t investigate yourself. The same logic must be true for many members (and former members) of the UK press itself.
Tina Brown, editor in chief at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, quipped after the NYT’s expose last September that “I’m shocked, shocked to learn … that the voice mail messages of celebrities have been bugged for tidbits of gossip—can you believe it?—by the Murdoch press in London.” At the time, I’d assumed that Brown’s use of Captain Renault’s iconic “I’m shocked” line from Casablanca was just an playful way of saying she’d strongly suspected there was hacking.
In fact, it’s possible that Brown was giving a self-indicting double wink. That, like Renault, Brown’s knowledge likely wasn’t theoretical or speculative and that within the UK press fraternity, the practice was common knowledge. After all, Brown was formerly the editor of UK magazine Tatler and is married to Sir Harold Evans , former long-time editor of The Sunday Times known for his investigative prowess and one-time Murdoch employee. As a former member of the UK press herself, Brown may have intimate knowledge of the phone hacking habits of her peers. Being friends with some of the miscreants, or friends of friends, Brown is doubtless cautious about throwing too many stones herself.
Again, the best case scenario is that no former NOTW staffers were silly enough to take their phone hacking skills when they changed jobs. At worst, journalists at multiple publications were engaged in the hacking, and the UK presses’ persistent investigative lethargy is not just the product of professional courtesy to fellow club members, but an attempt to avoid wielding a tar brush that might be turned on itself.
The Times says that the practice was widespread in the UK (saying in the 2003 slide of its NOTW timeline that “Former reporters say that hacking into the voice-mail of story targets was a widespread practice at NOTW and elsewhere”) but doesn’t follow-through on the implications of what amounts to a giant conspiracy of silence in the UK.
For now, the UK press is focused on chasing the scandal ever higher inside Newscorp. It’s obviously exciting to ask whether billionaire James Murdoch will be arrested soon too. It’s not just exciting, though. It’s useful. Keeping the spotlight headed upwards helps the UK press avoid asking hard questions of itself.
So it is up to the US press (and UK bloggers?) to ask: who at The Financial Times doing phone hacking? The Independent? The Daily Mail?
The Guardian? The Sunday Times? The Telegraph?
(Update: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger offers a stunning chronicle of his own paper’s attempt to report on NOTW’s misdeeds and the overall ‘omerta‘ in the UK press.)
Connecting the dots shouldn’t be too hard. As social network expert Valdis Krebs notes, network analysis might be one good tool for journalists to use in unraveling this story. By tracking which NOTW reporters moved on to other UK publications, you might find patterns that would trace the infectious spread of hacking practices.
So. Onward into the muck.
(Update: Here is Reuter’s take on NOTW’s ethical vacuum:
New staff would be given the cold shoulder until they’d proved themselves to be “thoroughly disreputable” so their colleagues could trust them. It was no place for anyone to pipe up and say: ‘This doesn’t seem ethical to me.’ That would have made you a laughing stock.”
Journalists didn’t explicitly ask for private investigators to get involved in their work, but help would be provided if a reporter got stuck on a promising story. “How it arrived on your desk was a bit of a mystery. You didn’t know and you didn’t ask,” said the reporter. “Every week, somebody’s mobile phone records, somebody’s landline records, sometimes even somebody’s medical records. It was common enough not to be notable.”
It looks like London mayor Boris Jordan agrees with me:
London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, a former journalist, has a typically contrarian view: “I think we’re going through one of these periodic firestorms of hypocrisy,” he told NEWSWEEK. “I’ve got no doubt that a good number of papers were engaged in identical practices to those of News of the World. The confected outrage about the intrusions that you’re reading in some newspapers that I won’t mention by name, except to say that they’re the Daily Mail—I’d be amazed if these papers weren’t engaged in similar practices. Including the Daily Mirror and maybe others as well.”)