Just last week, it seemed the specter of phone hacking was dying down for News International, the British arm of Rupert Murdoch’s media behemoth News Corp. The company had settled a string of hacking-related lawsuits in recent months—58 so far this year—to prevent the cases from reaching the high court. It was even reportedly close to reaching a settlement with the singer Charlotte Church, whose suit is scheduled to go on trial next week. But Cherie Blair, the wife of former prime minister Tony Blair, dropped a bombshell on Murdoch’s company on Wednesday when she announced her plans to launch a lawsuit against News International “in relation to the unlawful interception of her voicemails,” according to Blair’s lawyer Graham Atkins. (News Corp. has so far declined to comment on the matter.)
Blair is the latest in a string of public figures who have accused Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid of hacking into their personal phones or email accounts in a bid to dig up scoops. Actor Jude Law, football official Gordon Taylor, the son of serial killer Christopher Shipman, and the actress Sienna Miller have all brought actions against News International—as did the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, a revelation that broke the phone-hacking scandal wide open last summer and prompted the closing of News of the World. On Monday, the British press was finally able to reveal that a private investigator has been accused of hacking into the computer of former British intelligence officer Ian Hurst, allegedly at the behest of News of the World, to reportedly access confidential information about the identities and locations of IRA informants. News International is also reportedly facing at least 50 new civil actions from soccer players, singers, and politicians.
But Cherie Blair’s lawsuit is likely to be especially uncomfortable for Murdoch’s embattled company. The British public showed little interest in allegations of tabloid phone hacking when the targets mainly involved celebrities or sports stars. That sentiment changed quickly—and, for Murdoch, drastically—when lawyers accused News of the World of targeting innocent civilians who happened to be the victims of heinous crimes. Now, with Blair’s suit, if it's proved true, the phone-hacking trail could lead all the way to the halls of 10 Downing.
This is not the first time that Cherie Blair’s name has been tied to the phone-hacking scandal. Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s former communications director, told a parliamentary inquiry in November that he thought it “at least possible” that stories about the Blairs, published during the couple’s years in power from 1997 to 2007, could have been obtained via phone hacking. While Campbell admitted he had “no evidence” that Cherie Blair’s phone, or the phone of a close family friend, was hacked, he told the Leveson inquiry, “I think it is at least possible this is how the stories got out. They often involved details of where Cherie was going, the kind of thing routinely discussed on phones when planning visits, private as well as public.”
“I have also never understood how the Daily Mirror learned of Cherie’s pregnancy,” Campbell testified, referring to News of the World’s rival tabloid. “As I recall it, at the time only a tiny number of people in Downing Street knew that she was pregnant. I have heard all sorts of stories as to how the information got out, but none of them strike me as credible.”
The Blairs were known to have personal connections with the Murdochs, and News International’s most successful British tabloid, the Sun—the paper with the highest daily circulation in the country—backed Blair’s Labour Party in national elections, helping to ensure his decade-long reign. Murdoch’s third wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch, has also said that Blair is one of the Murdochs’ “closest friends” and the godfather of one of her young daughters with Murdoch. She also told Vogue magazine that the former prime minister attended the baptism of her girls in the River Jordan in 2010.
The supposedly cozy relationship between the Blairs and the Murdochs has led some critics to insinuate that Tony Blair failed to adequately pursue accusations of hacking that cropped up during his tenure as prime minister. And at the height of the phone-hacking crisis last July, he reportedly called his handpicked successor, Gordon Brown, to ask his friend to tell Labour M.P. Tom Watson to muzzle his attacks on News Corp. over the phone-hacking issue. (Neither Blair nor Brown confirmed the conversation.)
Watson also told The Daily Beast last summer that, after he had reportedly taken part in an intraparty coup against Blair and after Blair himself resigned in 2007, he was approached by a News International editor who warned him that he’d created a powerful enemy in Rebekah Brooks, the News International CEO and former editor of News of the World and the Sun, who is known as a surrogate daughter to Murdoch. “Rebekah will never forgive you for what you did to her Tony. She will pursue you for the rest of your life,” Watson said the editor told him.
(The editor in question told The New York Times that he has no recollection of the conversation with Watson.)
Watson was gleeful at the news of Cherie Blair’s suit today. “Just when the hacking scandal was disappearing from view, we know now that Rupert Murdoch’s hackers targeted family members of a sitting prime minister,” he told the Guardian. “The lesson for all politicians, including David Cameron, is that Rupert Murdoch is only a fair-weather friend. I trust that Tony Blair will condemn Murdoch’s failure to deal with long-term criminal wrongdoing at News International.”
The news of the lawsuit comes at a sensitive time for Murdoch, who is deep in the throes of damage control over a near staff revolt at the Sun over the arrests of several senior journalists in connection with a police investigation. The inquiry is looking into whether the tabloid’s journalists paid off public officials for information—an action that could put News International and parent company News Corp. potentially in violation of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, according to law-enforcement officials familiar with the case. News International has said it is cooperating fully with the police investigations.