The revelation that yet another family with a murdered daughter may have had a cell phone hacked—and that that phone may have been a gift from Rebekah Brooks—has unleashed another wave of outrage in Britain about what went on under Brooks’s editorship.
It was already clear that Brooks’s glib and fleet-footed testimony to British lawmakers recently about her tenure as editor of the News of the World was, at best, disingenuous. She knew nothing, she said, of the repugnant tactics of her reporters. She left no fingerprints when it involved hacking into the phone of a murdered teenager, Milly Dowler, and creating the false hope that she might still be alive—thereby also jeopardizing the police investigation.
Never mind that this degree of delegated authority looked like either incompetence or deliberate self-protection.
At the same time she was being absent from all odious activity at her paper she was, she told members of Parliament, very proud that she had run a campaign that triggered passage of British legislation—against considerable odds—to reveal the names and whereabouts of convicted pedophiles. The measure was named “Sarah’s Law”—similar to its U.S. forerunner, “Megan’s Law.”
There was nothing shy about her claiming the credit for that: “Part of the main focus of my editorship of the News of the World was convincing Parliament that there needed to be radical changes to the Sex Offenders Act…” she said before the British MPs.
That achievement has now been seriously compromised by the disclosure in The Guardian that a cell phone provided as a gift (allegedly by Brooks, who insists it was provided by News of the World) to the mother of Sarah Payne—another murder victim for whom the campaign was named—may have been targeted by Glenn Mulcaire, the News of the World investigator accused of hacking into the cell phone of Milly Dowler, and interfering with the police investigation.
Brooks had seized on her long relationship with Sarah’s mother to give the last edition of the News of the World a semblance of respectability. Under the headline “News of the World proved it is a force for good” the mother, Sara Payne, was recruited to write a eulogy of the paper—and of Brooks.
Sara Payne has now been told that all the while her cell phone may have been targeted by the very organization that so generously gave it to her and she is, understandably, “devastated and deeply disappointed.”
In light of the revelations, getting her to write that eulogy looks very cold and cynical.
There is not only an issue of journalistic ethics here. It’s also about outsourcing. As somebody who was once a managing editor—of the Sunday Times in London, pre-Murdoch—I have been left wondering why anyone would need to use private detectives and phone hackers to get a story. Private detectives? Did Woodward and Bernstein need them to bring down Richard Nixon?
We had a word for what we did in the paper’s investigative reporting team, Insight. Reporting. We did the reporting. How old-fashioned.
Between them, Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks fostered a newsroom climate in which “getting the story” became for the reporters a fearful task and, clearly, an unscrupulous one. Any method would do as long as it provided a good, trashy story that nobody else had.
And so it was that the News of the World went deep into the gutter and, for the sake of a few paragraphs revealing that messages had been left on Milly Dowler’s cell phone before her body was found, the paper eventually was to be so contaminating to its owner that it had to be shut down.
Was it worth it, Rupert? This entire worldwide corporation, created by often inspired and gutsy decisions in defiance of less visionary people, to become radioactive because of a rotten outpost in Fleet Street? The paper you used to launch the whole endeavor? To land your own son in the mire?
As for Brooks, the fig leaf of serious journalism has now been stripped away.
While nobody would take away the justice of Sarah’s Law, it was hardly prompted by a category of investigative reporting that went up against public indifference and official or corporate obstruction, the usual countervailing forces encountered in the course of journalistic crusades—as, for example, in The Guardian’s persistent and heroic campaign to expose the egregious standards of Murdoch’s newspapers.
Brooks’s crusade had uncomfortable elements of being a stunt that could produce less than seemly results—like the fact that pedophiles “named and shamed” by the paper were attacked by people who recognized them as neighbors.
Real investigative reporting is heavy lifting. It takes a degree of commitment and courage and editorial integrity that Brooks has never known—or displayed.