Journalism in the Public Interest

In the Phone Hacking Scandal, Remember Watergate

From this side of the Atlantic, the British phone hacking scandal seems more about a failure of British law enforcement than of the press to police itself.


On Sept. 11, 2009, Britain’s Press Complaints Commission released what turned out to be one of the most embarrassing reports in the modern history of journalism. The press watchdog, which had been set up by the media to police itself, said it had reviewed the Guardian’s July, 2009 stories on rampant phone hacking by tabloid journalists and found them to be overblown. There was nothing “concrete” to suggest there had been a “hitherto concealed criminal conspiracy at “The News of The World to intrude into people’s privacy.”

The commission’s report concluded that the Guardian’s stories “did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given.”

That assertion has proved entirely false. The full story was far, far more disturbing than had been reported.

British police today arrested Andrew Coulson, the former editor of the now-defunct News of the World for what authorities described today as “suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.” Earlier this week, the Guardian and other British publications reported that the News of the World had hacked into the mobile phones of the families of terrorist victims, war widows and a 13-year old girl who had been kidnapped and murdered. There appears no end in sight to the revelations, which could easily reach into the top levels of law enforcement, politics and publishing, perhaps even to Rupert Murdoch, whose sprawling media empire included the News of the World. Six journalists, including Coulson, have been arrested so far.

In the face of irrefutable evidence that it had been hoodwinked, the Press Complaints Commission officially withdrew its 2009 report, acknowledging that its findings were invalid.

There are some lessons for readers and investigative journalists on both sides of the Atlantic in this fiasco.

It’s worth remembering that investigative stories unfold episodically and that it often takes months and years for the most important facts to come to light. Imagine if a British-style press commission tried to parse the accuracy of the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting in late 1972, before the White House tapes confirmed the most damning allegations. An assessment of stories on the mistreatment of detainees and prisoners by U.S. anti-terror forces would certainly read differently if it had been written before the Abu Ghraib photos flashed around the world.

Another lesson from this story is the importance of following up. The Guardian pursued these stories after their initial reports, but the allegations received little play in other media outlets. It is a fair guess that Murdoch’s dominance of the British media market—he also owns the Sunday Times of London, the Times, the tabloid daily the Sun, Britain’s SkyNews, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News—might have had something to do with the deafening silence. The controversy was re-ignited in September, 2010 by a New York Times Magazine cover story, which alleged, among other things, that Coulson was aware of what had gone on within his newsroom. At the time, Coulson was serving as senior communications aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron.

This case also allows us to revisit that tired axiom that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Sometimes, cover-ups can work.

Look back at the Press Commission’s 2009 inquiry. Commissioners heard testimony from all of the key players in the phone hacking story, including the police and editors at the News of the World. All insisted that the scandal was limited to the dealings between a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, and a single reporter, Clive Goodman, the “royals” correspondent for the tabloid.

The Guardian’s 2009 stories asserted that the practice of hacking into voice mails was widespread and that “thousands” of phones were involved. The editor of News of the World told the commission that these figures were “not just unsubstantiated, and irresponsible, they were wholly false.” According to the Commission’s report, senior officials from London’s Metropolitan Police told them a “small number, perhaps a handful” of phones had been targeted.

On Thursday, the chief Metropolitan police investigator acknowledged that as many as 4,000 people had their privacy breached by reporters.

There are suggestions that executives within Rupert Murdoch’s News International concealed evidence of the hacking. The Guardian reported today that Scotland Yard is investigating the deletion of millions of relevant emails.

James Murdoch, the heir apparent to his father and the chairman of News International, admitted this week that “The News of the World and News International wrongly maintained that these issues were confined to one reporter.” In a statement announcing that he was closing the tabloid, James Murdoch said that the company had given police information that will “prove this was untrue” and that the paper made statements to Parliament “without being in full possession of the facts.”

”This was wrong,” he wrote, “and is a matter of serious regret.”

In his statements today, Prime Minister Cameron has suggested that the affair resulted from a failure of the press to police itself through the voluntary Press Complaints Commission. The watchdog, he said, had proved that it "lacked rigor." Cameron said he has asked for recommendations on a new system for regulating journalism that would be “entirely … independent of the press, so the public will know that newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves.”

From this side of the Atlantic, that sounds like a terrible idea. Press commissions have never worked well here, and the idea of imposing some sort of government-drafted ethics code on journalists sounds even worse.

The failure being laid bare by this scandal, to an American eye, seems more basic. Britain has laws to protect privacy and punish criminal conduct by journalists. The British police seized the notebooks of the private investigator employed by the News of the World and somehow ended up with a prosecution of a single reporter. The Press Commission’s main misstatements rest on the testimony of police officials. As investigations go forward of how this could have happened, a clear area of inquiry is whether law enforcement authorities circumscribed their investigations to avoid exposing the tabloid’s bribes to police officers, or even because the police themselves feared the power of the country’s dominant media company.

A final lesson from the U.S. experience: Rupert Murdoch runs a famously tight ship. With the arrest of Coulson, the questions mount about his bosses at News International—Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton and Rupert Murdoch himself—all of whom remain in top positions at the company. Here’s a question from Watergate days that might be helpful:

“What did they know, and when did they know it?”

George W. Drance

July 8, 2011, 2:42 p.m.

There are several lessons for us in this unfolding scandal and its collapsing coverup. I agree that it would be wrong to try to set up some sort of press regulatory body (similar to the British commission) simply because that system failed. But there is a much greater need for an independent regulatory body in an “industry” that affects our basic freedoms but tolerates its miscreants’ excesses: the lawyering business.
Only the most publicized egregious frauds perpetrated by rogue lawyers who not only steal from their own clients but destroy lives and livelihoods (Bernard Madoff, Marc Dreier) are called to account. Too many are covered up by their colleagues and allowed to go unfettered to ruin their next victims. The Bar Associations and many so-called disciplinary bodies seem to function as Lawyers’ Benevolent and Protective Associations. We have independent citizen commissions for police and other agencies. It’s time for an impartial body of non-lawyers to be established to help the GOOD lawyers rid their profession of the bad apples that have made lawyering the butt of so many jokes and end their corruption of our equal protection rights.
George W. Drance

What about the Atlanta school system and doctors who protect their own?  What we need is not more commissions to hold meetings and make more rules about behavior but a society-wide expectation of honesty. No lies or coverups should be tolerated from a professional while actively performing their work tasks or in any capacity within a professional work environment where they are granted authority and/or respect from others. If one wants such respect they must be trustworthy.

Dishonesty erodes a vital role professionals play in society—acting as role models for our youth. When a young adult sees a respected doctor, judge, teacher, nurse, coach run a red light, it signals disrespect for the law and sanctions fringe behavior. If that “trickles down” and pollutes the next generation’s values, we all suffer. Any adult who abdicates their responsibility to contribute to the best of their ability and uphold honesty and the legal system deserves to be permanently removed and discredited.

I truly beleived at one point of time in Gandhiji"s maxim that ends do not justify means.

But look at the magnitude of information and knowledge concealed from us after whistleblowers such as Assanfe brouth them to surface we are shuddered to think of the very foundation of human existence is threatened making freedom of speech belief and action on which our liberty and independence is based on is uttrly meaningless. Mr.Cameron says nobody is above law.It is very sweet to hear it.But this is often said by people who scarcely respects cannons of law making. Wheil archaic laws fail to safeguard our freedom and suppress silent evidence from speaking every one will want to be above such laws. Finally this is the warning: While misuse of faith of public on fourth estate is to be condemned and wrong doers punished let us not becom instruments of destruction of our liberty and meaningful existence.

The main reason that this investigation stalled in all places, apart from the Guardian. Is that the entire establishment in this country, from politicians to the police, are terrified of Murdoch. Everyone has secrets they would rather not be known.
We should not have allowed so much of the UK media to fall into the control of one sociopathic man.

I was in top advertising management for a very successful daily newspaper in the 1980s, when President Reagan and Congress gutted the antitrust laws.  One day the VP of Marketing asked me if we should buy a weekly newspaper, which was our only real competition in the region, or start our own weekly.  I said, “We can’t buy the weekly - it’s against the law.”  He said, “Not anymore.”  The daily bought the weekly and kept it in business because the owners understand the need for healthy competition.  However, the daily in a nearby major metropolitan market bought two very successful chains of weekly newspapers in the greater metropolitan area an put them out of business within two years.  This monopoly of the media was happening all over the country and we are paying for it now with the global media concentrated in the hands of a few conglomerates.

Great article.  Keep after them! 

Regarding Mr. Drance’s complaint of the need to police the lawyers - how about physicians and hospitals?  How many people are injured or killed daily by their negligence?

I very rarely read of a doctor having their license jerked or receiving public discipline.  BUT, in California and other states, one can read in the bar association monthly journals of dozens of lawyers who are either disbarred, suspended or publicly reproved. 

I don’t see this public discipline in any other profession, and God knows the medical professionals need public scrutiny and discipline!  Talk about a protected bunch of holier-than-thou business people.  The AMA refuses to air their dirty linen and Wee the People suffer, as a result - and pay through the nose.  Terrible lack of regulation by their profession.

And, under the healing profession are the so-called nursing homes.  Most American nursing homes are nothing but very lucrative hell-holes, when you get to the basics, and that’s regardless of how they look or how much you pay.  They are the Shame of the last decades and continue to be so.  Little to nothing is done to regulate this greedy, indefensible industry.

But I must say, back to your article:  good, solid, independent, investigative journalism may be the most important institution of all in protecting our freedom and democracy.  Long live the Fourth Estate!

Dara Gallagher

July 9, 2011, 1:44 p.m.

You really should know that this story is really the work of one superlative journalist who has pursued this story all the way. His name is Nick Davies and he writes for the Guardian. He also brought us WikiLeaks
He never gives up. And now his story is rattling politics,police and press in the UK.
He may even emasculate Murdoch.
Man of the year.

Russell La Claire

July 9, 2011, 1:53 p.m.

The idea that any entity will, over time police itself is absurd. Media, lawyers and physicians are mentioned above. The military has the Inspector General system, which is just as much a failure as all the rest. Self policing is an oxymoron in the truest sense.

sean in Newport Beach

July 10, 2011, 11:08 a.m.

If James Murdoch’s company had given police information that is proven untrue I hope he gets prison time adding up to the same number of years Casey Anthoney was!

If you think how far the Murdochs have gone in molding public opinion, this scandal is especially frightening.  They tear down governments through this manipulation.  They convince people economies are sound, when they are teetering.  They inform us that global warming is a myth to encourage us to drive more.  They have gotten a large portion of the population addicted to their mind candy, which may in the end have actually gotten people fat by living couch potato existences.  And, amid the rubble of their projected of their fantasies, they call themselves a news organization.  Too much power invested in too few hands with the consent of the hypnotized.

That’s why I believe in half of what I read and less of what I hear!  So many people think the media is ALWAYS right.  Some even use “recommendations” given by newspapers to decide on who to vote for in Federal and State elections….that’s really the sad part!!!  People don’t realize there are “liberal” newspapers and “conservative” newspapers, so they vote the way their newspaper tells them because they are too lazy to do their own research!!!  It’s a sad thing that we let the media run our country!

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