Allegations that journalists at popular British tabloid News of the World systematically hacked the mobile telephones of politicians, celebrities, and even aides to the Royal family have been circulating since 2006. This morning, the saga came to a dramatic climax, with parent company News International announcing that the paper would close permanently, effective this Sunday. The BBC reports that:
This Sunday’s issue of the News of the World will be the last edition of the paper, News International chairman James Murdoch has said.
In the past few days, claims have been made that the paper authorised hacking into the mobile phones of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the families of 7/7 bombing victims.
Meanwhile, in the Guardian:
Investigators inside Scotland Yard are trying to identify up to five officers who were paid between them a total of at least £100,000 in cash from the News of the World, the Guardian understands.
Documents sent to the police by News International did not name those involved but contained pseudonyms which investigators within the Yard are trying to match with individual officers.
The revelation comes a day after Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said that the amounts involved had been paid to a small number of officers.
Over the past three days, these new, more serious, allegations have seen the paper’s major sponsors and advertisers pull away, and public opinion finally move beyond the point of no return. Rumors have abounded for a while — former deputy prime minister John Prescott, actors Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller (the latter of whom received £100,000 in damages in a private settlement), and aides to the Royal family have all accused the paper of hacking their phones. But the claim that murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler, victims of the 7/7 London bombings, and British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan had their phones hacked proved a bridge too far. Tom Watson MP, of the opposition Labour party, claimed that News International “had no choice,” given the “revulsion of families up and down the land.”
The revelations will serve a serious blow to Prime Minister David Cameron, who will find it hard to avoid being personally tainted by the scandal. Cameron’s reputation took a hit back in February of this year, when his former press secretary, Andy Coulson, who is a former editor of the paper, was forced to resign over continuing allegations that hacking occurred during his time at the helm. (He strenuously denies this.) Cameron refused to agree to a public investigation into the matter, despite considerable pressure, a move that may come back to bite him.
The Labour party has frequently taunted the government over its close ties to News International, whose newspapers overwhelmingly endorsed the Conservatives at the election in June of last year. The challenge for David Cameron now will be to distance himself from the suspicion that his close relationship with editor Rebekah Brooks pushed him into giving the paper a soft ride. There is no doubt, especially now that public opinion has turned against the paper, thus inuring him from the wrath of the Murdoch empire, that the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, will try and tie the prime minister’s fate to that of the News of the World.
Worse still for the government, the closure takes place against the backdrop of an unpopular and controversial takeover bid of the British Sky Broadcasting group by News International. Critics have charged that there is a conflict of interest, given that the government — which will decide whether or not to approve the bid later this year — is generally supported by News International’s other papers The Sun and The Times. Culture minister Jeremy Hunt, who is in charge of the consultation process for the proposed takeover, today refused to confirm that the news would delay a decision.
The closure does not necessarily spell the end of News International’s domination of the U.K.’s tabloid market, however. The News of the World is not an independent paper, but the de facto Sunday edition of The Sun, and there is speculation that The Sun will simply move to a seven day operation. Justice minister Kenneth Clarke, a Conservative, claimed, “All they’re going to do is rebrand it.” David Cameron is most likely hoping this is not the case.
The scandal centered around a loophole in mobile voicemail security. Until 2006, the majority of British cell phone providers set passwords to an easy default (generally either 0000 or 1234), and did not require the user to change the number to something personal. A significant number of mobile users did not change the pin, leaving themselves exposed to hackers, who could just call the number and log-in from the outside.