Reading List: The Phone-Hacking Scandal

All hell broke loose in the British press last week when Rupert Murdoch revealed he’d be shutting down the News of the World in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Since then, an avalanche of inquiries, conjecture, and gleeful ribbing. Even as the last ever edition of the News of the World — an inappropriately rose-tinted edition — sells record copies, the true reach of the scandal is still unknown, and the fate of the now-unemployed News of the World staff is as much in the balance as that of Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch. This story will go down as one of the decade’s biggest, and here I’ve collected some of the more unmissable and informative pieces on the scandal from the past week or so.

Phone-hacking scandal: is this the tipping point for Murdoch’s empire?

This longform piece in Sunday’s Observer is a great, thorough overview of the scandal to date and all of its known players.

As the story switched last week from hacked celebrities to vulnerable members of the public, the mood noticeably shifted. In the City, BSkyB’s shares took a pounding as Ofcom, the media regulator, said it would consider whether News Corporation would make a “fit and proper” owner of BSkyB. By the end of the week the shares were down nearly 12%, wiping £1.8bn off BSkyB’s market value as hedge funds bet the deal would be bogged down for months to come.

The fit and proper person test applies to any owner of a TV station in the UK. The regulator indicated it would invoke the test only if a director of BSkyB were to be charged with criminal offences, such as phone hacking.

But other legal concerns are brewing. There is speculation that illegal acts by company executives in London could potentially be prosecuted in America under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which is aimed at stopping US firms from engaging in bribery abroad.

What The Papers Won’t Say

Peter Oborne writes about Murdoch’s relationships with British politicians and how they helped him keep a lid on a lot of the scandal.

In normal circumstances, such troubling and persistent failures of prime-ministerial judgment would be meat and drink to an opposition leader. But until this week, Ed Miliband had made the pragmatic decision to ignore the phone-hacking story — explaining privately to confidants that he had no choice because the alternative would be ‘three years of hell’ at the hands of the Murdoch press. His recent, panicked call for Brooks’s resignation only serves to highlight his silence on the scandal hitherto.

Anybody There?

Archie Bland, the Independent’s foreign editor, in CJR going long on why the British press went to increasingly inexcusable lengths to ignore the story.

But to this day, there has been no such savaging. As responsibility for the sins of News International, the British print arm of Murdoch’s global media empire News Corporation, has edged further and further up the food chain, the vast majority of the British press have done their utmost to look the other way. That careful silence allowed the company’s initial defense—that wrongdoing was confined to a couple of bad apples—to stand for years longer than it should have. And it left many key questions unanswered: among them, whether the so-called phone hacking was still going on, whether it took place at other publications, and whether Rebekah Brooks, now chief executive of News International, had sanctioned the practice in her time as editor. Today the taint of scandal is getting ever closer to Brooks. If a crop of pending lawsuits from hacking victims successfully pins responsibility on her and her fellow senior managers, News Corporation’s already considerable legal exposure could balloon to many millions of pounds.

The explanations of that silence—and of its consequences—tell us something just as disturbing about Britain’s media as the phone hacking itself. And they suggest that the feral behavior on show at the annual awards jamboree was only the tip of the iceberg.

Rebekah Brooks: A ruthless, charming super-schmoozer

The Guardian have a short, revealing profile of Rebekah Brooks and her career to date.

"Andy Coulson often joked that the essence of tabloid journalism is turning someone over one day, and them ringing to thank you the next," recalls one ex-Sun staffer, who worked under both editors. "Rebekah Brooks is the ultimate exponent of that art."

On the evening of November 2, 2005, the day that David Blunkett had been forced to resign from government for the second time in a year, the former minister travelled to the Sun’s offices in Wapping to share a drink with the paper’s editor. The Sun, the previous year, had been the paper that named Kimberley Quinn, the Spectator’s publisher, as Blunkett’s lover.

But if such a talent can explain Brooks’s meteoric rise, it does not explain the extraordinary tenacity with which she has clung to her job as News International chief – even while James Murdoch was forced to acknowledge “repeated wrongdoing” at the News of the World, admitted NI executives had misled parliament and abolished the biggest selling newspaper in the country. Can it really be the case, as Friday’s Independent put it, that the News of the World has been “sacrificed to save one woman”? And if so, why?

Murdoch’s malign influence must die with the News of the World

Also in the Guardian this weekend was this powerful op-ed calling for an end to Rupert Murdoch’s “malign influence.”

Over 40 years, Murdoch convinced the establishment that he can make or break political reputations and grant or take away electoral success. In doing so, he has come close to gelding parliament, damaging the rights of citizens and undermining democracy. It is legitimate to ask how a naturalised American, domiciled in New York, born in Australia, and who pays next to no UK tax, holds so much sway. What right exactly did this man have to exert such influence over our political life? Freedom of information requests reveal that he spoke to prime minister Tony Blair three times in the 10 days that led up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. This was a perversion of our politics, orchestrated by a man whose power the establishment failed to check. Then they had to live with the demeaning consequences.

And what did Britain get in return for gifting this man the back keys to political power? (Literally in Murdoch’s case, as he swept into Downing Street days after last year’s election and then left by the back door). In return, a swaggering, bullying, crassly ineffective News International treated British citizens with contempt by hacking their phones and treated the media, police and politicians investigating the affair with wilful disdain and barely concealed threats. Let this never happen again on our watch.

Do Britain’s Strict Press Laws Actually Encourage Bad Behavior?

Bradford Plumer has a theory: Britain’s libel laws — which are some of the strictest in existence, but expensive to pursue — are actually encouraging the press to behave badly.

Granted, there’s always the possibility that, if Britain’s libel laws were repealed, the British press could become even more reckless. But I have another theory. There’s a classic economic study that involved parents and daycare. Many parents were late in coming to pick up their kids, so the daycare decided to start fining parents for being late. What happened next, unexpectedly, is that more parents started showing up late. It seemed as if once they could simply pay a fine for tardiness, they didn’t have to worry about guilt or propriety—they were free to come late. Is it possible that, in much the same way, Britain’s strict and oft-used libel laws mean that the papers can just pay the fine and see irresponsible reporting as a transactional affair?

The fall of the house of Murdoch

Jonathan Schell says the wider consequences of the phone-hacking scandal will depend on how governments and citizens assess News Corporation. They’re in the business of entertainment, not journalism, and they peddle in right-wing propaganda.

This is News Corporation’s main face in the US, in the form of Fox News, whose hallmark has been relentless propagation of right-wing ideology. Whereas political propaganda had once been the domain of governments and political parties, Fox News is formally independent of both - though it overwhelmingly serves the interests of America’s Republican Party.

In Britain, News Corporation has been creating a sort of state unto itself by corrupting the police, assuming police powers of surveillance, and intimidating politicians into looking the other way. In the US, it has behaved similarly, using corporate media power to breathe life into a stand-alone political organisation, the Tea Party.

This was the first of what I hope to be a recurring feature. If I missed anything great on this list, or you have an idea or a submission for a future list, do get in touch.

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