With a ‘Thank You & Goodbye’, the 168-year old British tabloid ‘News of the World’ came to an unexpected end on July 10, 2011, leaving in its wake several questions on journalistic ethics and engulfing the powerful Murdochs themselves.
“We are sorry”, said the world’s biggest media baron Rupert Murdoch, CEO and Founder of News Corporation, in a letter to the general public, regarding the recent allegations of phone hacking by the News Corp-owned ‘News of the World’ (NOTW).
At a public hearing on July 19, 2011, when Murdoch was grilled on the involvement of his employees in unethical practices, he confessed, “This is the most humble day of my life”, though he denied having prior knowledge of any phone hacking activities. “‘The News of the World’ was in the business of holding others into account. It failed when it came to itself,” he added.
Coming close on the heels of the Niira Radia leaked tapes controversy in India, it has once again put the Fourth Estate under the scanner. How much is too much and how far can one go in the need to bring the ‘truth’ to the people – the latest scandal has surely got the entire media fraternity looking inwards and do some soul-searching. The NOTW scandal would hopefully bring forth more responsibility in reporting.
Authors Kovach and Rosenstiel stated in their book titled ‘Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople should know and the public should expect’ that “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth”, followed by “its first loyalty is to the citizens”.
The press is supposed to be the Fourth Estate, which takes others into account for their actions, be it government officials, businessmen or celebrities. But the NOTW phone hacking controversy has forced the media fraternity to hold a mirror to itself and the illegal and unethical practices resorted to by journalists themselves in the course of news gathering.
On July 4, 2011, UK’s leading daily The Guardian came out with a news report that ‘News of the World’ had been involved in hacking the phone of a murdered schoolgirl following her disappearance in 2002. In the following weeks, various facts unraveled about the tabloid’s involvement in various phone hackings, forcing Murdoch to shut down the paper.
But the phone hacking controversy goes further back. In December 2005, the British Royal family filed a complaint of suspicion of interference with their voicemails. In August 2006, ‘News of the World’ royal editor Clive Goodman and his associate Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, were arrested on charges of phone hacking and imprisoned in January 2007. Andy Coulson, the erstwhile editor of ‘News of the World’, resigned following the charges and claimed to not know about the hackings. In May 2007, the Press Complaints Commission published a report on the hacking scam saying no further wrongdoing was committed.
However, from 2009 to 2010 a number of revelations emerged against the newspaper’s staff on their involvement in phone hackings and the extent of the hacking activities. The July 2011 report by The Guardian on the hacking of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone by the paper brought the issue back into investigation. In the subsequent days, facing protests from advertisers and with the public opinion of the paper falling, Murdoch decided to shut down the tabloid. Top News International employees such as Les Hinton, Chief Executive of Dow Jones & Company; Tom Crone, News International’s legal manager; and Rebekah Brooks, CEO, News International. quit.
Rebekah Brooks was arrested on July 17, 2011 in the wake of the scandal. On July 19, 2011, Rupert and James Murdoch appeared at a public hearing by the Culture Media and Sports Committee, along with Brooks. Murdoch claimed he had no idea about the phone hackings, while Brooks agreed to having paid the police for information in the past in a hearing in 2003.