On July 24, 2012, the British Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would file criminal charges against eight people in connection with the “phone hacking” scandal rocking the British media. The announcement followed more than a year’s worth of revelations, investigations, and inquiries, sparked by one of the most wide-reaching ethics scandals in modern media history.
The group facing charges includes some of what website The Daily Beast called “Fleet Street’s most prominent tabloid journalists:” Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International and before that, editor of News of the World, a newspaper Murdoch closed as the scandal unfolded around it in spring and summer 2011, and Andy Coulson, News of the World editor after Brooks who resigned amid an earlier phase of the phone hacking controversy in 2007. Coulson subsequently served as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Director of Communications. Stuart Kuttner was News of the World managing editor for 22 years; Greg Miskiw, Ian Edmondson, and James Weatherup were senior reporters and assistant editors. Neville Thurlbeck was a chief reporter. Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who worked for the newspaper, was convicted in 2006 of illegally listening to voice mail messages of the royal family. He now faces new charges. (For more on the phone hacking scandal, see “Not Just a ‘Rogue Reporter’: ‘Phone Hacking’ Scandal Spreads Far and Wide” in the Summer 2011 issue of the Silha Bulletin, and “Murdoch-owned British Paper Embroiled in Phone Scandal” in the Fall 2009 issue.)
A statement by Alison Levitt QC, principal legal advisor to the Director of Public Prosecutions, said that among the total of 19 charges, all but Mulcaire were to be charged with “conspiring to intercept communications without lawful authority, from 3rd October 2000 to 9th August 2006. The communications in question are the voicemail messages of well-known people and/or those associated with them. There is a schedule containing the names of over 600 people whom the prosecution will say are the victims of this offence.” Each individual will face additional charges related to specific victims whose phones they allegedly hacked. The New York Times reported July 24 that the charges could carry prison sentences of up to two years.
Brooks and Coulson were already facing charges related to phone hacking investigations before the July 24 charges. On May 15, The New York Times reported that Brooks was charged along with five other people for “perverting the course of justice” by trying to hide or destroy evidence. On May 30, Coulson was charged with perjury for lying under oath while discussing phone hacking at News of the World.
Although the practice of phone hacking — illegally accessing the voicemail of famous or prominent subjects of news coverage — had been known about since before the 2006 case involving Mulcaire, the problem sparked increasing public and political outrage when an investigation by The Guardian revealed that the News of the World accessed the voice mail of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who went missing in 2002 and was later found murdered. News of the World investigators and reporters allegedly listened to the voice mail messages of worried family members as police searched for her.
The New York Times’ John F. Burns wrote on July 24, 2012 that the scandal’s effects are far-reaching. British reporters and editors say it has led to a “chilling effect” on the press, as the notorious “red top” tabloids are less eager to appear sensational or unethical. The scandal has also uncovered a culture of corruption and bribery, “checkbook journalism that is alleged to have included payments rising into the tens of thousands of dollars to public officials, including police and prison officers.” In addition to the harm done to Murdoch’s News Corp. in the public eye, the scandal has led to “hundreds of millions of dollars in legal costs, out-of-court settlements and payoffs to employees who have been laid off,” including a settlement with Milly Dowler’s family reported to be several million dollars. “Together, prosecutors say, it is a tally of wrongdoing that is likely to yield many more criminal cases in the months ahead,” Burns wrote.
(For more on the phone hacking scandal, see “Director’s Note: Scandals, Inquiries, and Reform Might Leave U.K. Press Freedom Worse for the Wear” in this issue of the Bulletin. )
– Patrick File
Silha Bulletin Editor