The dark arts

Vanity Fair reports:

Phone hacking is illegal in Britain, but that is a technicality. By all accounts, it was a practice that was indulged in by many reporters at many newspapers. “It started as a playground trick,” Paul McMullan, a former editor at the News of the World, told me. “It was so easy that everybody did it, and there was absolutely no reason not to.” No reason, that is, until there was a very good reason—when the practice suddenly went too far. In 2005, senior aides to the royal family noticed that voice-mail messages they had never listened to were showing up as saved messages in their in-boxes. At the same time, the News of the World was running stories about the princes that could have been known only to a small circle of intimates. One article quoted verbatim from a voice-mail message left by Prince William for his brother, in which William imitated Harry’s girlfriend, Chelsy Davy. Tipped off by the Palace, Scotland Yard launched an investigation.

In 2006 a reporter at the News of the World, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator who worked for the newspaper, Glenn Mulcaire, were found guilty of illegally listening in on the voice-mail messages of the royal household. The two men received short prison terms. The editor of the newspaper, Andy Coulson, resigned from his position, though he stated that he had no personal knowledge of phone hacking being done by anyone in his newsroom. Coulson described the phone hacking of the princes as the work of a “rogue reporter.” He was backed up by other executives at News Corp., which owns Fox Entertainment, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and several of the biggest newspapers in Britain, including the News of the World.

But the “rogue reporter” story wasn’t true. Phone hacking was common practice at the News of the World, and News Corp.’s stance finally crumbled amid a raft of lawsuits, a serious police investigation, and a steady stream of departures from the paper. Besides the victims already mentioned, the alleged targets of the News of the World apparently included the actor Hugh Grant, the comedian Steve Coogan, the model Elle Macpherson, the soccer stars John Terry and David Beckham, and even (the British press has suggested) Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Nobody knows exactly how many people were targets altogether—a conservative estimate would be 2,000, but the true figure could be double or triple that number. The scandal has touched some of the most prized executives at News Corp., such as Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive for its U.K. newspapers, and Les Hinton, the chief executive of Dow Jones & Co., who used to have Brooks’s job. Rupert Murdoch, 80, now must deal with allegations that some of his editors encouraged criminal activity and then repeatedly lied about it—sometimes under oath—to cover it up. The possible ramifications extend to British politicians of all stripes, who have for decades done what they could to curry favor with Murdoch, and to Scotland Yard, which has its own cozy relationships with the tabloids and is widely suspected of having tried to keep a lid on the revelations.

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