Fallout from tabloid phone-hacking scandal spreads
Britain’s military veterans’ association pulled out of a campaign with the News of the World aimed at bettering conditions for service families as it emerged Thursday that phones of relatives of soldiers killed in action had also been hacked.
REUTERS - A scandal rocking Rupert Murdoch’s media empire deepened on Thursday with claims his best-selling News of the World paper hacked the phones of relatives of British soldiers killed in action.
Britain’s military veterans’ association broke off a deal to campaign with the paper on improving conditions for service families, signalling how far the scandal is alienating a core readership, already horrified by suggestions that journalists accessed the messages not only of celebrities and politicians, but also missing children and the relatives of bombing victims.
The British Legion also said it may join major brands in pulling advertising from The Sun, which like its sister paper the News of the World mixes a diet of stories exposing scandal among the rich and famous with populist campaigning.
The long-running saga has taken on dramatic new proportions this week and threatens to delay a planned multi-billion-dollar takeover by Murdoch’s News Corp of news and entertainment broadcaster BSkyB .
It has also raised fresh questions about the power the Australian-born Murdoch has wielded for 30 years over the British press, politicians — including Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron — and the police.
“We have let one man have too far great a sway over our national life,” said lawmaker Chris Bryant, who secured a debate in parliament on Wednesday in which politicians lined up to vent their fury at News of the World and its powerful proprietor.
“No other country would allow one man to garner four national newspapers, the second-largest broadcaster, a monopoly on film rights and first-view movies.”
The government has already backed a deal for Murdoch’s News Corp to buy out the 61 percent of pay-TV company BSkyB it does not already own, and says the two cases are not linked. But U.S. shares in News Corp fell over 5 percent on Wednesday, while shares in BSkyB also eased on fears the deal may delayed.
"Appalled and horrified"
News International said it would work with the Defence Ministry to investigate a report in the Daily Telegraph that the phone numbers of British soldiers were found in the files of a News of the World investigator jailed in 2007 for hacking.
“If these allegations are true, we are absolutely appalled and horrified,” the company said in a statement, echoing language it has used repeatedly as each new case has been brought to light in rival publications. It also noted that it had always been a strong supporter of Britain’s armed forces.
The British Legion said it could not campaign with the News of the World, Britain’s biggest selling Sunday paper, on behalf of the families of soldiers “while it stands accused of preying on these same families in the lowest depths of their misery”.
It added: “The hacking allegations have shocked us to the core.”
Cameron has proposed inquiries into the newspaper and also into the wider issue of ethics in the cut-throat, and shrinking, news business. Arguments over privacy, free speech and the power of the press have already stirred heated debate this year.
However, critics called Cameron’s move to set up official inquiries a tactic to push the embarrassing affair far into the future. The precise form of those inquiries is still unclear.
Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband has called for the BSkyB deal to be referred to the Competition Commission and said that Rebekah Brooks, a former editor and now Murdoch’s most senior British newspaper executive, should quit.
So far, Murdoch has said he will stand by Brooks, 43, who edited the paper from 2000 to 2003, when some of the gravest cases of phone hacking are alleged to have taken place. She is a regular guest of the prime minister, as well as having good relations with previous Labour leaders in power until last year.
Senior politicians from all parties, including Cameron and Miliband, rubbed shoulders with Murdoch, Brooks and other News Corp executives at Murdoch’s exclusive annual summer party last month, underlining the power his organisation wields.
Both Miliband and Cameron chose former News International employees as media advisers, although Cameron’s choice of Andy Coulson, who succeeded Brooks as News of the World editor, has caused the prime minister the more obvious problems.
Coulson quit the paper over the first hacking case in 2007 and went to work as Cameron’s spokesman. He resigned from the prime minister’s office in January as police reopened inquiries.
The scandal dominated front pages on Thursday, including at Murdoch’s Times—though the Sun devoted all but a few lines to allegations about the sex life of soccer star Rio Ferdinand.
The main accusations are that journalists, or their hired investigators, took advantage of often limited security on mobile phone voicemail boxes to listen in to messages left for celebrities, politicians or people involved in major stories.
Disclosure that the practice involved victims of crime came when police said a private detective working for the News of the World in 2002 hacked into messages left on the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler while police were still looking for her.
Mark Lewis, a lawyer for her parents, said other papers had also been involved in underhand pratices to secure circulation-boosting stories, and said News of the World was “unlucky” because its investigator had kept copious notes—in 2007, he and the paper’s royal correspondent went to jail for hacking.
Police are mining those notes kept by investigator Glenn Mulcaire for clues to possible other victims. The list of those named so far by rival publications also includes victims of the London suicide bombings of July 7, 2005, and the parents of 3-year-old Madeleine McCann, who disappeared in Portugal in 2007.
Murdoch, the 80-year-old U.S.-based billionaire, kept a low profile at a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. He did, however, issue a rare statement saying he found the allegations of hacking, and reports his journalists also bought information from police, “deplorable and unacceptable”. He has named a senior News Corp executive to oversee an investigation.
Analysts believe the global Murdoch empire, which includes Fox television and the Wall Street Journal in the United States as well as London’s Times, can weather a storm of reproach from advertisers, readers and politicians in Britain — though there were signs on Thursday of international ramifications.
In Murdoch’s native Australia, the leader of the Greens party said he wants the government to examine the ramifications on Australia of the phone hacking scandal.
The secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, said it was concerned by allegations of breaches of privacy. He said: “Governments need to act resolutely to fight and to prevent violations of this fundamental right, whilst actively protecting and promoting freedom of speech.”