Inside Story on NOTW hacking scandal

By Karuna Kumar

“Everyone knows how the Rupert Murdoch story ended: with a kind of giant heave of revulsion at what his employees had been up to and with a multi-million pound merger stopped in its tracks by the most overwhelming parliamentary vote anyone can remember,” says Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian as he pens down his thoughts for the recently released, Guardian Shots, that reveals how the Guardian continued to pursue the story.

Deeply ingrained in arrests, drowned in numerous civil actions, the phone hacking scandal stands as one isolated case that has shaken prolific aspects of British and American civic life. Policing, politics, media and regulation all stand in chaos and embarrassment.

The man who broke this explosive story, Nick Davies, Special Correspondent at the National News Desk at the Guardian spoke to simply-communicate humbly explaining how he got to the end of the story.

“Simply, I had a phone call from somebody who knew the truth and who wanted me to bring it out.”

At a time when the majority of Fleet Street were turning a blind eye to the phone-hacking issue, Davies continued to religiously pursue the case and remorselessly produce one revelatory story after another.

When it all began: 2006

News of the World’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, writes a story about Prince William’s injured knee. The first seeds of suspicion are sown. Suspicions leads police officials to interrogate deeper into the matter and arrest Goodman and the private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire on charges of intercepting the voice-mail messages of three employees of the royalty.

In a recent report published by the Guardian, Nick Davies reveals that Clive Goodman, on being imprisoned in 2007, wrote a letter to News International’s (NI) HR chief, Daniel Clark. In the letter, Goodman appeals against the decision of News International to terminate his employment and points to the promise of a secure job made by NOTW editor Colin Myler and Tom Crone, the paper’s legal boss, on grounds of maintaining silence while in prison so that the paper does not get implicated.

Though Goodman was sacked from his job at the News of the World after his conviction, he subsequently received payments from News International totaling £243,500—far more than the company has admitted.

“Does the letter imply that Goodman was offered an inducement to withhold knowledge of criminality from the police and courts?” Davies questions in his revelatory report.

Murdoch openly denied any phone hacking culture amid these allegations.

Guardian’s continuous efforts to investigate into further such cases of wrongdoing within NOTW lead the Press Complaints Commission in May 2007 to publish its first hacking report confirming no reports of wider wrongdoing. Myler was able to prove that Goodman was just one rogue case who had deceived the employer.

Hacking revisited: 2009

In 2009, the Guardian reopened the story.

Reports revealed that NOTW paid £1 million to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal more incidents of wrongdoing within the organisation. In addition, the Metropolitan Police had not alerted those whose phones had been targeted and the Crown prosecution service had failed to pursue possible charges against News Corp.

In the same year, it was revealed that NOTW paid £700,000 as out of court settlement in legal costs and damages and asked the court to seal the case that Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the Professional Footballer’s Association had alleged against NOTW on grounds of his phone having been hacked.

What was most interesting to view around this time was the way David Cameron and George Osborn continued to embrace Andy Coulson with a protective arm and insisted that their communications director would not be forced to stand down.

In 2010, the Guardian names more hacking victims. NOTW continues to settle legal cases out of court. There are confirmed reports that link Andy Coulson to four private investigators. These recurring incidents lead former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott to call for a judicial review.

On being asked if it bothered him that he was a lonely figure in reporting these events and if he would continue to pursue this agenda further with other newspapers, Davies says, “We have to follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

Despite confirmed reports, the Press Commission failed to investigate and garner further evidence. What followed and carried into 2011 were a slew of confessions and criminal convictions.

Explosive revelations

The most explosive evidence that shook News International was the revelation of the Milly Dowler case.

Rusbridger recalls, “What caused a surge of revulsion was the revelation that Nick Davies made about the NOTW journalist hacking into the phone calls of the missing Milly Dowler, deleting her voice mails so that they could listen to new ones. Rarely has a single story had such a volcanic effect.”

Operation Weeting launched

The initiative launched in 2011 to investigate the allegations of phone hacking, conducted alongside Operation Elveden looking into allegations of inappropriate payments to the police by the alleged hackers.

It was revealed in March 2011 that Jonathan Rees, previously convicted of murder was hired by NOTW as a private investigator. Links have been established between Rees and corrupt officials who earned £150,000 a year from NOTW for supplying illegally obtained information.

In light of the above issues, Davies categorically says, “Bribing is illegal. We’re not allowed to do it. I’ve never paid a cent of a bribe, nor ever seen the need to. If there are skills in reporting, the most important of them are around persuading people to talk to us – bribing officials or police doesn’t come into it.”

Academic insight

Paul Dwyer, a former BBC journalist and currently the course leader of International Business Media at University of Westminster, shares his views on why phone hacking at newspapers was not uncovered earlier, considering it was common practice at Fleet Street.

“It is complicated. Police officials always assumed that you didn’t prosecute Journalists considering they were ostensibly involved in public interest activities. Journalists were always after the bad guys and the police was always after the bad guys,” says Dwyer.

He adds, “Another reason was that other newspapers didn’t want to report it. The problem is that we have a tradition of self-regulation in the press. So like doctors and lawyers, you take it for granted that they are professionals and you trust them.”

Rupert Murdoch

In a recent event at the LSE, ‘What’s next for Rupert Murdoch’, biographer Michael Wolff and author of ‘The Man who Sold the News’, gave an inside look at the controversial newspaper publisher.

“He has built an empire around tabloid newspapers whose raison d’être is to catch people in their most vulnerable moments. That’s what he does and that’s what makes newspapers sell.”

“2.7 million people read News of the World and I am sure Rupert is thinking to himself, where did they think this stuff was coming from?” he exclaims.

He points out that Murdoch is bad with dates, names and abstractions and tends to lose track of the conversation when he takes long pauses mid-sentence.

Does the fact that Murdoch has lost support from the Parliament and a vote of confidence from the public unsettle him? To this Wolff responds, “An interesting and fundamental thing about Rupert is that he doesn’t seek affirmation.”

Dr. Daya Thussu, Professor of International Communication at Westminster speaks of the theory of Murdochisation which refers to the excessive marketisation of journalism. “Murdoch is at the forefront of this excessive commodification of news and that news is primarily based on two things – celebrity and sport,” Thussu says.

“This incident demonstrated in all its glory the toxic nexus between politics and popular press that leads to excessive marketisation of news which in turn encourages criminal offences within journalism. Hacking phones, making up stories, lying in private and public conversations are all a result of that nexus,” he adds.

Dwyer believes that there must be an external body for regulation. “While I do know that people think otherwise, I do feel that this incident clearly reflects the need for an external body to regulate and monitor the media. People might argue that after all, it was the Guardian that revealed bad practice but let us not forget that it was just one paper that was consistently pursuing the issue whilst all other papers continued to ignore reporting the issue for as long as they possibly could.”

What does all this mean for communicators?

Post the parliamentary committee proceedings numerous questions about the internal culture at News International and the lack of consistency in confessions made by senior management enveloped the issue.

Indranath Neology, a veteran communications consultant says, “One lesson for every business person from the NOTW scandal is that you cannot sacrifice ethics for profit. It works in the short term but in the long term the damage can destroy your reputation and your company.”

He adds, “Another lesson is about the handling of the crisis – the repeated attempts to cover up bad news and wrongdoing eventually just amplified the impact when the details came out. Part of the communicator’s brief is to present things in the best light possible, but this scandal highlights that two common strategies can go very badly wrong: One is a lack of clarity internally about messages being made public and two of omitting details to make things look better.”

On numerous occasions companies do benefit from non-disclosure and while it is unwise to speak about details that have not been investigated enough, Neology believes that a communication plan must be in place.

Communication expert and change consultant, Tim Johns, holds the view that the communications and media profession is not alone in facing ethical dilemmas. Many people are often faced with having to make difficult decisions based on an interpretation of what is right in a given context. To have a lodestone to guide you at such moments is the first step.

Johns says, “The CIPR’s Code of Conduct is an excellent example and covers areas such as professional integrity, confidentiality, competence and transparency. You also need to be aware of the rules covering market abuse, especially if you are dealing with the media.”

One of the high-risk areas for communication professionals lies in conveying messages that are deliberately disingenuous that act as a smokescreen to what’s really happening.

“The most difficult position to be in is having to not tell the truth. Obviously one should never lie: not only is it unethical but, as the truth has a habit of always coming out eventually, it can affect one’s personal credibility. If you do find yourself in a tricky situation I would recommend sharing it with confidential advisors,” Johns further explains.

Looking forward

As for long-term effects of the NOTW scandal, Davies appears relatively unphased.

“I think people may be exaggerating the long-term impact of all this. The immediate goal is to make sure that the judicial inquiry into press regulation comes up with helpful proposals,” Davies points out.

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