Hacking scandal rocks Murdoch empire

If there was any doubt that Rupert Murdoch realizes his media empire is under threat, his latest move at damage control is unprecedented: the News of the World is about to be shut down.

The News of the World, a British tabloid with which most Americans will be unfamiliar, is not as powerful as Fox News, but it is just as representative of Murdoch’s ruthless approach to media sensationalism and journalism as cut-throat commerce.

The latest phone hacking story that The Guardian broke on Monday revealed that there seem to be no ethical boundaries that News Corp is unwilling to cross.

After schoolgirl Milly Dowler went missing in March 2002, “News of the World journalists reacted by engaging in what was standard practice in their newsroom: they hired private investigators to get them a story.”

Scotland Yard is now investigating evidence that the paper hacked directly into the voicemail of the missing girl’s own phone. As her friends and parents called and left messages imploring Milly to get in touch with them, the News of the World was listening and recording their every private word.

But the journalists at the News of the World then encountered a problem. Milly’s voicemail box filled up and would accept no more messages. Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened – and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.

The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper’s own intervention. Sally Dowler told the paper: “If Milly walked through the door, I don’t think we’d be able to speak. We’d just weep tears of joy and give her a great big hug.”

The deletion of the messages also caused difficulties for the police by confusing the picture when they had few leads to pursue. It also potentially destroyed valuable evidence.

Today, The Guardian reports:

The senior detective leading the phone hacking inquiry said on Thursday that there were 4,000 possible victims of phone hacking listed in the pages of private eye Glenn Muclaire’s notebooks and they were being contacted “as quickly as possible”.

Deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers, who is running Operation Weeting, broke her silence to give more details on her operation as the number of victims being publicly identified continued to grow.

Her words are the first official confirmation of what the Guardian reported two years ago – that thousands of people were listed as possible victims in the notebooks of Mulcaire, who was hired by the News of the World. These individuals were not contacted by detectives investigating phone hacking in the first inquiry, known as the Goodman inquiry. The Guardian’s original story in 2009 suggested that between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals might have been the victims of phone hacking.

The fallout from the hacking scandal also extends to London’s police force:

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.

News that officers were allegedly paid so much in bribes has caused shock and concern within Scotland Yard, where the directorate of professional standards is now investigating the matter. There have been calls for an external force to be brought in to investigate the scandal – Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has said someone else should wash the Met’s dirty linen in public.

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