NEW YORK -- If News of the World reporters and private investigators had only illegally snooped on Sienna Miller and the Royal Family, the nearly five-year-old phone hacking scandal might have dragged on another five years without Rupert Murdoch, or one of his top lieutenants, taking the fall.
But it's looking increasingly unlikely that the 80-year-old News Corp. chief will get through this gathering media storm without throwing someone overboard. That's because the Guardian broke the news Monday that journalists allegedly intercepted messages from the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler during the agonizing months in which her family held out hope she was alive. Mild scoffing at Fleet Street shenanigans run amuck quickly turned into outrage. And the long-simmering tabloid scandal reached a boil Tuesday as the public and press finally got on the same page and demanded answers.
Now with rival news organisations churning out damaging follow-ups, readers voicing their disgust and advertisers dropping out, it’s no surprise that politicians feel compelled to jump in the fray.
Prime Minister David Cameron took a break from his Afghanistan trip Tuesday to condemn the “really appalling” allegations regarding the 13-year-old girl abducted in 2002. "If they are true, this is a truly dreadful act, and a truly dreadful situation," Cameron said. Meanwhile, Labour leader Ed Miliband called Tuesday for a public investigation and said that British journalism has had “one of its lowest days." He added that Rebekah Brooks, the tabloid’s top editor in 2002 and now chief executive of Murdoch’s News International, needs to “consider her position.”
Despite all the high-profile victims already wrapped up in the scandal -- from Prince William to Hugh Grant to Tony Blair -- it took a young girl’s name to galvanize the public and shake up the press.
Just last month, Independent foreign editor Archie Bland called out the British media for not holding News Corp’s feet to the fire, nearly five years since the hacking story first broke.
It's not as if no one was on the case. But even while the Guardian's Nick Davies chronicled NotW's phone hacking two years before co-writing the Dowler story, his deeply reported piece never gained enough traction to apply serious pressure on News Corp.
A New York Times investigation breathed new life into the long-running scandal last September, but that also didn't compare with the fallout of the Dowler news. Bland wrote that only the Guardian and Independent -- two two left-leaning expected to have an axe to grind with the conservative press baron -- followed up extensively on the latest allegations of top News Corp. staffers sanctioning the spying. Other publications devoted considerably less ink.
And given the NY Times-Murdoch rivalry, News Corp. brushed off the paper's six-month investigation as a way to "score points against a rival media group."
"As many independent commentators have observed, the New York Times was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to harm a competitor," NotW managing editor Bill Akass said at the time. "Why else devote such enormous resources to a relatively obscure story about a British tabloid which yielded so little in terms of new information?"
Given that two major investigations, coupled with ongoing coverage in the pages of the Guardian, didn't lead to accountability at the top of News Corp, Bland remained sceptical.
“But to this day, there has been no such savaging,” Bland wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. “As responsibility for the sins of News International, the British print arm of Murdoch’s global media empire News Corporation, has edged further and further up the food chain, the vast majority of the British press have done their utmost to look the other way. That careful silence allowed the company’s initial defence -- that wrongdoing was confined to a couple of bad apples -- to stand for years longer than it should have.”
No one's looking the other way now. In fact, news outlets are tripping over one another to advance the story.
The Telegraph reported Tuesday that Scotland Yard is contacting family members because its believed that NotW journalists tried accessing "voice messages left on family members’ phones as they desperately waited for information about their loved ones in the aftermath of the bombings in 2005.”
Things are picking up across the Atlantic, too.
Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison, who wrote the book on Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal and recently detailed the Guardian’s dealings with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange last January, reported that Brooks’ successor and ex-Cameron spokesman Andy Coulson “condoned payments” from newspaper staffers to Scotland Yard.
The BBC also reported Tuesday on Coulson’s involvement, noting that the police investigation apparently “goes much wider than an examination of the hacking of mobile phones.”
In addition to follow-ups, there’s another reason the NotW story is gaining more momentum than in Aug. 2006: social media. Back then, Facebook was barely accessible outside of the University gates and Twitter didn’t exist. Since Monday afternoon, journalists have been jumping on Twitter to share new information –- whether from their own news outlet or competitors -- while media professors and critics size up the effect of these latest revelations.
“Has it occurred to you that with News Corp. and its international cousins we're talking about a criminal organisation?” tweeted NYU professor Jay Rosen.
Emily Bell, director of Tow Centre for digital journalism at Columbia University and the former editor of the Guardian’s website, tweeted that she “cannot imagine Rebekah Brooks can stay in her job.”
Murdoch has never been shy about dismissing journalism professors or the so-called media elite throughout the last half century. But Murdoch doesn't ignore his own business interests and the increasingly ugly scandal may not only scare away advertisers, but worse, could throw a kink in his plans to take over the majority interest in broadcaster BSkyB.
The Financial Times, in an editorial published Tuesday night, reminded Murdoch of how the fallout from the phone hacking scandal could negatively affect the media empire's bottom line.
“The affair has inflicted great reputational damage on News Corp,” the FT wrote. “This should be of concern not just to Mr Murdoch but also to the company’s wider shareholder base. After all, the group is seeking to expand its UK interests massively with the acquisition of the broadcaster, BSkyB..."
“Mr Murdoch exercises great power over the British media -- some people think too much,” the editorial concluded. “With that power comes responsibility. Mr Murdoch should live up to it.”