If any story could strike terror into the leaders of Britain’s two major political parties, it would be: MURDOCH NEWSPAPERS ACCUSED OF CRIME SPREE.
And it happened last week, when The Guardian revealed a £1 million ($1.54 million) legal settlement by News International (Murdoch’s U.K. newspaper company) for illegally intercepting telephone voicemails of Gordon Taylor, head of England’s Professional Footballers' Association, and of his legal adviser. The Guardian also accused Murdoch’s newspapers—the weekday Sun and its Sunday stablemate The News of the World—of obtaining information by criminal means from 3,000 other people.
The terror of Rupert Murdoch has dominated British politics for around 25 years. Even Margaret Thatcher, famous for her resolute defense of free enterprise, personally refused to enforce anti-monopoly laws in newspapers and television for the benefit of the owner of The Sun, News of the World, The Times, and Sunday Times. Since then, every leader of each major party has been Murdoch’s eager courtier. Tony Blair set the style of the relationship in his first year as leader of the Labour Party, when he dashed halfway across the world to speak to Murdoch’s executives on a holiday island in Australia. (In return, Murdoch was gracious enough to praise Blair for his courage.) In his first year as prime minister, Blair made a personal call to then-Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to help Murdoch’s bid for Mediaset—the first time in history that a British prime minister has helped a non-British company to make a non-British acquisition.
Gordon Brown followed suit by courting Murdoch’s economic guru, Irwin Steltzer, nervously awaiting the latter’s verdicts on his handling of the British economy like a schoolboy hoping for a good report card from the principal. It was most clearly seen when both Brown and the Conservative Party opposition leader, David Cameron, were desperately eager to attend the recent wedding of Sun editor Rebekah Wade, who is shortly to become chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper empire.
As a belated wedding present for the blushing bride and her boss, Cameron suddenly promised to strike down Ofcom—the body which regulates Murdoch’s British operations, and which, a few days before, had told him he was charging too much for the rights to British football and Hollywood movies.
In this political context, neither of the major parties wants to be forced into action against Rupert Murdoch as a result of the Guardian story.
Two years ago, when the News Of The World’s royals editor, Clive Goodman, went to jail for hacking royal telephone calls, both party leaderships were happy to buy the story that this was a one-off case and that Goodman was a “rogue operator,” whose methods were unknown to his editor, Andy Coulson, and to senior Murdoch executives.
Now the Guardian has established that Goodman’s was not a one-off case and alleges that senior Murdoch executives knowingly approved, authorized, and even directed the use of methods that are potentially criminal. Although the Guardian story is much more embarrassing in the short term to Cameron, who chose Coulson as his spin doctor, it is just as hot a potato for Gordon Brown. If any of the Guardian’s allegations stand up, the prime minister might see his attorney general deciding to prosecute Murdoch’s senior executives.
Brown is therefore secretly delighted that the police have decided to make no investigation of the Guardian's claims. If it were up to him and Cameron, the Guardian story would simply disappear. Two factors may prevent this.
The first is the decision by the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to re-open its inquiry into media incursions into privacy.
Normally, House Select Committees are very tame bodies, with nothing like the independence or authority of U.S. congressional committees. Their members are generally handpicked by party whips and their reports are usually anodyne and ignored.
This particular select committee may be different. It is in the last year of its life and has little to lose if it decides to go out with a bang. After months in which MPs have been pilloried by the British media over expenses scandals, MPs on the committee may find it irresistible to strike back at the media—especially when they could pose as the protectors of the personal privacy of popular celebrities—such as domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, named by the Guardian as a Murdoch newspaper victim.
The committee chairman—Conservative John Whittingdale—is out of favor with his party leader and has no reason to do his bidding. Another member, Paul Farrelly, is an independent-minded Labour MP—and a former investigative journalist for the Guardian’s Sunday cousin, the Observer.
Another Labour member, Alan Keen, has already urged his colleagues to investigate James and Rupert Murdoch, to establish the general principle that newspaper proprietors are responsible for the methods of their employees. Other committee members are known to be angry at the statements they were given by Murdoch executives on the Goodman case, and are eager to grill them again. Between them, the MPs might just decide to hand down a hard-hitting report, which Brown and Cameron could not ignore.
More important, neither Brown nor Cameron can predict the results of further litigation.
By revealing the Gordon Taylor settlement, the Guardian has alerted many people, and not only celebrities, that they might win huge tax-free damages from Murdoch’s newspapers in a civil action, where the burden of proof is much lower than for a criminal offense.
Mark Stephens, a leading London media lawyer, has suggested that each individual litigant could win around £500,000 ($770,000); he himself has already been approached by two high-profile figures who believe their telephones were hacked. News International could find itself having to pay off a stream of successful litigants—and any one of their cases could generate evidence to support a criminal prosecution.
The Guardian story could, just possibly, force Britain’s major parties to face up to Rupert Murdoch after 25 years of subservience.
Richard Heller is a British author and journalist and former chief of staff to Denis Healey, deputy leader of the British Labour Party.