There’s a joke doing the rounds. A banker, a Daily Mail reader and an income support claimant are sitting round a table. There are 12 biscuits on a plate. The banker takes 11 and tells the Daily Mail reader, "You want to be careful, that scrounger's after your biscuit."
The Mail has got a lot of biscuits of its own, selling over two million copies a day as does its Sunday edition. Only two British papers sell more (the Sun 2.7 million and the News of the World at 2.6) and they both belong to Rupert Murdoch. (photo:Reuters)
The latest sales figures show the circulation of all four papers is going down, however the News publications were experiencing a greater decline. The Sun has to try harder to reach a more diffuse audience than the died-in-the-wool Tory Mail. The last survey of readership by voting intention in 2004 showed over twice as many Tory voters than Labour read the Mail but the Sun had a 41-31 preference of Labour voters.
Murdoch's publications can’t take a hard reflexive pro-Tory line without alienating a substantial number of its readers. Far easier than talking about stealing biscuits is to give their audience an apolitical ration of tits, titillation and celebrity gossip. But the News of the World’s attempts to get inside access to the gossip that fuels their pages has ended up in the courts and a criminal investigation. There is likely to be great cost to Murdoch’s pockets in a case that has already had one high-profile casualty, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spinner-in-chief Andy Coulson.
Coulson was editor of the News of the World in 2006 when police finally exposed its phone hacking practices. No one can say how long it had been going on, but to this day Coulson denies he knew about the activity, a position that makes him either a liar or a fool. The only employee who has admitted guilt so far is former royal reporter Clive Goodman. Goodman had a reputation for scoops and held the paper's record for the highest number of consecutive front-page leads. But his thirst for inside information led him to hack private phone messages.
He hired a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire to help him. Mulcaire managed to access message bank pin codes to listen to messages. Royal aides were confused when they found unread messages in their inbox appearing as already read. When Goodman then reported unusual information that only a handful of aides were privy to, the royal household rang the counter-terrorism branch of Scotland Yard. Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested and police raided the offices of the newspaper for evidence. With Goodman more or less caught red-handed, he pleaded guilty to intercepting phone messages when he faced court in January 2007. He got four months jail. As Justice Gross said in sentencing, the case was not about press freedom. “It was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy," he said. Coulson had resigned two weeks earlier, seeing the writing on the wall. His departure wasn’t formally announced until the 25th when Mulcaire also pleaded guilty and got six months. Police found a hit list of other celebrities in his diary; celebrities not normally covered by Goodman in his royal round, but did little with this information.
The News of the World hid behind the ‘rotten apple’ and ‘rogue reporter’ defence. It would take another two years before the world would learn the hacking’s tentacles went a lot further than Goodman. Three phone companies told The Guardian at least 100 of their customers’ pin codes were compromised, which contradicted earlier police and News of the World claims only a handful was involved. The Guardian said those tapped including then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and PR guru Max Clifford. The Guardian also said Coulson was aware of the tapping. By then the Tories were in power and Coulson was Cameron’s right hand man. With Labour calling for his head, ConservativeHome.com blog editor Tim Montgomerie asked how many times did Andy Coulson have to resign for the affair. Twice was the answer, after he left the government job in January 2011.
Meanwhile, the net was widening back at NOTW. MPs on a culture, media and sport select committee accused News Limited executives of collective amnesia, as well as ignorance, lack of recall and deliberate obfuscation. They said it was inconceivable no one else knew about the hacking. Several victims took the paper to court and won substantial out of court settlements that preventing discussion of the affair. Max Clifford won $1m on condition the list of journalists involved was not read out in the court.
In September 2010, the New York Times revealed why Police had no enthusiasm for the investigation. Parliamentary committee chair John Whittingdale said Scotland Yard didn't want expose widespread tawdry practices in the newsroom because it was "a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift.” A former reporter told NYT the News of the World had a “do whatever it takes” mentality under Coulson and the then editor was present during discussions about phone hacking.
With Coulson denying the claim under oath, it has been difficult to mount a criminal prosecution. The Metropolitan Police has re-opened the investigation following what they said was significant new information. However it has been mostly left to the aggrieved to take to the civil courts. Sky Andrews, Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, Chris Tarrant and Andy Gray have all taken legal action against the paper.
Desperate to avoid the extent of the crime being revealed in open court, Rupert Murdoch was finally forced to take decisive action. On Thursday he apologised to eight victims and admitted the practice was rife at the News of the World. Murdoch said internal investigations into the matter were not “sufficiently robust" and has offered unreserved apologies to some of the victims (though it continues to fight allegations by Coogan and jockey Kieren Fallon). Murdoch has offered up to a million pounds, though some expect the bill to reach £40m. With new evidence there may have been 3,000 people on Mulcaire’s lists, there is a lot of people looking for crumbs from Murdoch’s biscuits. The question becomes how high a price News is prepared to pay to avoid making public the reasons why their internal investigation wasn’t sufficiently robust.