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July 26 2011

19:25

Your Guide to the U.K. Phone-Hacking Scandal (or 'Hackgate')

From time to time, we provide an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. We've previously covered Twitter, local watchdog news sites, and Net neutrality, among other topics. This week MediaShift U.K. correspondent Tristan Stewart-Robertson looks at the phone-hacking scandal.

Background

To still use the terms "phone hacking" or "News of the World" to describe the scandal engulfing the British media is now somewhat insufficient.

"Hackgate," as it's often called on Twitter, has really been going on since 2002, but didn't explode until July 4, 2011 and has since dominated the news in the U.K. and increasingly abroad.

Without question, The Guardian has been the leader on the phone-hacking story from day one, and reporter Nick Davies will most certainly be the runaway candidate for "reporter of the year" at next year's British Press Awards. The paper's multimedia coverage and interactive features on a continually moving and expanding story are second to none.

The New York Times has also been a leader on the story, particularly with its September 2010 investigation into the subject.

Glossary of Terms

"Blagging": It might sound like a quaint English term, but it, too, is illegal. As the BBC summarizes, the Data Protection Act 1998 prevents someone from pretending to be another person for the purposes of gaining access to private data, such as medical records.

Phone hacking: The technical term for what private investigators, and some reporters, were doing for the News of the World is actually "illicit voice message interception." It's illegal to access someone else's cell phone messages, usually by having one person call the phone, and while it is engaged, a second person calls and gets access to the messages. Most people wouldn't think to change the standard manufacturer's code, such as 9999 or 0000, to protect voicemail, and so it's usually quite easy to access.

"Pinging" or phone tracking: Police can track a suspect's cell phone by triangulation from nearby cell phone towers. But as the Guardian exposed, the News of the World allegedly paid police to access such tracking. If proven, both the bribery and obtaining of private data would be punishable.

Public Interest: When the British media talks about what is in "the public interest," this is quite broad but has a specific legal backing which is referred to as The Reynolds Defense. The full case is here, but Wikipedia has a summary of it.

Regulation: Many commentators, when talking about possible statutory regulation of the press, cite the flaws of self-regulation, which currently takes the form of the Press Complaints Council and its code of practice. But regulation could mimic the Broadcasting Act 1996 which dictates fairness and balance in television news, and can invoke large fines for breaches.

Main Cast of characters

Andy Coulson: Editor of the News of the World. He resigned in 2007 when phone hacking was first exposed with the criminal convictions of former royal correspondent Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire. Coulson later was appointed as chief of communications for Prime Minister David Cameron before resigning again this year.

james murdoch.jpg

James Murdoch: Chairman and chief executive of News Corp., Europe, and son of Rupert, he authorized out-of-court settlements for phone hacking, which he later said he regretted because he did not have all the information about the extent of the criminality. His evidence in front of a House of Commons select committee has now been questioned.

Rupert Murdoch: Chairman and CEO of News Corp. Political leaders considered he was essential to have on their side to be able to win British elections.

Rebekah Wade: Editor of the News of the World, then its sister paper The Sun, and then chief executive of News International until her resignation during the hacking scandal. She was editor at the time of the alleged hacking of the phone of murdered 13-year-old school girl Milly Dowler, which turned the public against News International.

Timeline

In 2005, a story about medical treatment of Prince William led Buckingham Palace to suspect interference with his voicemail.

Goodman, the News of the World royal reporter, was jailed in 2007 as was private investigator Mulcaire. Coulson resigned as editor, and everyone claimed it was just a few bad apples.

In 2009, the Guardian returned to the story and exposed out-of-court settlements to public figures, suggesting there were thousands more potential victims, including celebrities and politicians.

On July 4, 2011, the Guardian revealed the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone, which turned public attention dramatically to the story.

After an outcry from the public and a campaign on Twitter and Facebook to get advertisers
to drop the News of the World, News International announced that the July 10 issue of the News of the World would be the last after 168 years.

The next week, News Corp. announced it would stop its attempt to take over all of BSkyB.
And in the ultimate climax, the following week, James and Rupert Murdoch and Wade gave evidence to a House of Commons select committee.

The dominant digital coverage

20110721.GU.hackingtimelinegraphicwb.jpg

The phone-hacking story traditionally would have started in print on July 5. Instead, the Guardian released it online first on July 4, giving other media a chance to pick up the story for the next day and hitting the social media sphere much earlier than Tuesday morning.

That very much fits into the strategy announced by the Guardian last month of digital first. Most, if not all, of the revelations from the phone-hacking scandal were broken online before print editions hit the streets in a battle for the public attention -- and frequently mid-afternoon so ideally placed to catch the 6 p.m. TV newscasts and an American audience five or more hours behind.

Online coverage has also allowed for detailed timelines and data visualizations in the Guardian, as well as crowdsourcing from the Guardian and Telegraph (see below).

Digital reaction

When news of the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone first broke, outrage ensued on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Although the public did not initially have papers in front of them to target particular advertisers with the News of the World, a campaign soon started.

Parenting forum Mumsnet helped drive the online campaign and pulled its own campaign from Sky television, which at the time News Corp. was trying to acquire.

Again, the Guardian was at the forefront of providing information, publishing the Twitter addresses of the top 50 News of the World advertisers.

Twitters users became perhaps the most active during the James and Rupert Murdoch testimony in front of Britain's Select Committee on July 19, showing the speed of social media reaction. Within minutes of a protestor throwing a shaving-cream pie at Murdoch senior and the right-hook reaction from wife Wendi Deng, #piegate shot onto the Twitter trending list, only to be overtaken minutes later with #wendi.

Crowdsourcing and Data Visualization

The Guardian and Telegraph have both invited readers and users to get involved in sorting through data. The Telegraph released articles from the past decade in the News of the World that mention phone calls, voicemails and emails. The Guardian's crowdsourced list of potential victims is currently offline to check accuracy. The Atlantic has also praised such efforts to tackle the volume of potential phone-hacking victims and associated data.

Investigations

  • The Leveson Inquiry will be the formal and broad investigation into the media's practices and ethics, as well as publishers' involvement with politics and the police.
  • Operation Weeting is the formal inquiry by the Metropolitan Police into phone hacking and more, and is a follow-up to the previous failed police inquiries. A total of 60 officers are now on the case.
  • The Serious Fraud Office in the U.K. is said to be considering an investigation.

In Numbers

Deaths: 1 [Sean Hoare]

Arrests: 9 [Neville Thurlbeck, Ian Edmondson, James Weatherup, Terenia Taras, Coulson, Goodman, an unidentified 63-year-old man, Neil Wallis and Brooks]

Charges: 0

Allegations dropped: 1 [Press Association reporter Laura Elston]

Convictions: 2 [Goodman, Mulcaire]

Resignations: 4 [Brooks (News Int), Coulson (technically well before the scandal blew up, and twice, from News Int and Conservative Party), Sir Paul Stephenson (police), John Yates (police), Les Hinton (Dow Jones)]

Fired: 1 [Matt Nixson, features editor at The Sun and former NOTW employee]

Laid Off: 200 [News of the World staff, according to its former political editor]

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

July 18 2011

01:42

What’s next for News Corp. and its worlds

There’s no telling how the News Corp. saga will turn out, but I’ll try. Here’s a scenario that leads to the breakup of News Corp., the Murdochs out of power, the deflation of institutional journalism, a break in the too-cozy media-government complex, an unfortunate rise in regulation of media, and a fortunate opening for newcomers. This story of legality and morality will quickly shift to one driven by business.

A week ago, I speculated that News Corp. would need to get out of the news business. Not so crazy. Since then, the FT’s John Gapper speculated similarly, as did John Cassidy at The New Yorker.

And since then, News International head Rebekah Brooks resigned and was arrested; Dow Jones head Les Hinton resigned; Murdoch gave up on BSkyB; the Murdochs agreed to testify before Parliament; and the revelations of corruption between News Corp. and police and government get only worse, leading to the resignation of the head of the police. What looked so far out doesn’t look so far out now. So how could this progress?

* Start with the end of a Murdoch succession plan. Rupert’s defense aside, James Murdoch’s handling of the scandal has been irresponsible, short-sighted, cocky, and dangerous. The trail of scandal is lapping at James’ feet. Whether or not he is investigated or arrested for crimes, there can be no confidence in his leadership. None of his siblings is in any better position and they are feuding anyway. Rupert Murdoch is looking more lost and his testimony Tuesday at what will appear (to Americans, at least) like an impeachment hearing will only implode his stature yet further.

Meanwhile, more importantly, News Corp. lost more than $7 billion in market cap over four scandal-filled days. That number may go up or down but it’s ominous in any case. Shareholders are suing. There will be a call for professional and independent management of the corporation, sooner than later. If I were an “independent” director of News Corp., I’d be scared to death right now.

Buh-bye Murdochs? As unthinkable as that may have been only two weeks ago, it’s now quite conceivable.

* Off with the headlines! That professional management will quickly conclude that the news divisions of News Corp. are a costly drag and will try to divest them, starting with the UK properties and then spreading elsewhere. News Corp. is an entertainment company. Professional management will focus on that and get rid of Rupert’s bully pulpits. If they previously did bring clout and regulatory convenience to the Murdoch’s business strategies, now all they bring is grief and the attention of lawmakers, prosecutors, competitors, and detractors. News is clearly not a growth business; it is, as a friend in the trade said, profit-challenged. So stop the presses already.

I said in my post last Monday it may be difficult to find a market for the properties. But they become costlier to News Corp. by the day, so the desire to unload them will only grow as their value declines. In the UK, the Sun has been eclipsed online by the Daily Mail. Murdoch gave up on strategies of growth and advertising when he put The Times behind a paywall, its audience shrinking from millions to a reported 100,000. An egotistical oligarch might buy either.

* In the U.S., the right-wing depends on Fox News and is surely getting nervous about its fate. It is becoming — if one can imagine this — even more of a laughingstock than it already was as it ignores or defends Murdoch in the scandal. I could imagine Roger Ailes assembling rich Republicans to engineer a leveraged buyout and keep it safe for them in time for the election. Then there could be no doubt of its role as a propaganda arm of the right.

The New York Post loses tens of millions a year and lives only to give Murdoch his toy and pulpit. Professional management cannot justify that. It will die or find its egotistical oligarch (its Conrad Black or Robert Maxwell … I cannot imagine even the Murdoch heirs allowing their patriarch to hold onto it and eat into their fortune yet further).

The Wall Street Journal is in quite the pickle. Again, professional management will want to get rid of it because it is not a good business; its ROI, if any, is worse than The Simpson’s. But who would buy it? Recall that no one else but Murdoch would buy it for the price he offered, an overeager amount he soon had to write-down. Last week, I suggested that if Murdoch wants to rescue the last shred of his legacy, he should put the Journal into a trust, a la the Guardian and its Scott Trust. Past that, it’s hard to imagine its fate. Would Bloomberg or Reuters buy its financial data businesses? Is there a fire-sale buyer for the paper and its web site? They’d better hurry before it is ruined by delusional editorial such as this one defending Murdoch.

News Corp. is also in the business of coupons and circulars distributed in newspapers. That business, too, will shrink as those transactions go digital and mobile. I’ve been told by major marketers that their need for FSIs (free-standing inserts) will disappear within two years — another blow to newspapers’ kidneys. Someone will buy that business to consolidate the trade. Though it, too, has News Corp. cooties. David Carr says this division has paid out $655 million to get rid of charges of espionage and anticompetitive behavior.

In publishing, that leaves HarperCollins. Murdoch tried to sell it sometime ago; no such luck. Who’d buy it now? I couldn’t imagine. (Disclosure: My last book, What Would Google Do?, was published by HarperCollins. My next book, Public Parts, was set to be but I pulled it when I found myself being highly critical of News Corp. as the antithesis to a company that operates openly.)

There’s been much speculation that illegalities abroad — or, if they are found, in the U.S. — could lead to News Corp losing its domestic TV licenses. I don’t think that would happen. If professional management replaces the Murdochs and the scandal-ridden news divisions are ejected, then it’s hard to imagine the FCC — which basically never revokes licenses and would take a decade to try — pushing News Corp. out of the local TV business. Besides that, there is nothing I’d call news on Fox stations. They are entertainment distribution outlets.

* The only thing left in the publishing arm is Australia. Various politicians of lesser or greater power are calling for reconsideration of the incredible newspaper holdings Murdoch has there. I could see the company holding onto this for old time’s sake if there isn’t too much political pressure. Or I could see it being spun off to family, again for old time’s sake.

* So then News Corp. would be an entertainment company and a successful one.

* The next big impact will be regulating journalism in the UK. As I said here, I would lament that. The regulators didn’t bring Murdoch to the bar; journalists did — namely Nick Davies of the Guardian. We don’t need more controls on journalism. We need more journalism.

In the US, you can bet we’ll hear more about regulating media consolidation. But that’s not the issue. Morality is.

* I believe the biggest long-term impact of l’affaire Murdoch will be the diminution of institutional journalism and its cozy relationship with institutional government. That is good news. It opens opportunities for independents: for us.

* None of this could happen. Murdoch will hold on as long as he can — witness Murdoch’s “interview” with the Wall Street Journal claiming that the company has handled all this well and also the denial in the Wall Street Journal editorial just published, which tries to shift the blame for shoddy journalism to Murdoch’s competitors and critics. The longer Murdoch holds on, the less his empire will be worth. Just how stubborn is he?

July 08 2011

20:04

Who Is Ultimately Responsible for the U.K. Phone-Hacking Scandal?

The revelations coming out by the hour in the U.K. phone-hacking scandal are breathtaking. What began as supposedly a rogue operation by a gossip reporter and a private investigator have now allegedly widened to include many more editors, reporters, investigators, bribes to police and the shutdown of the best-selling newspaper in the English language -- the News of the World. (You can get more details from our MediaShift report as well as on today's podcast.)

The question is: Who is ultimately responsible for this scandal? The people who did the hacking, which was illegal, or their bosses who had knowledge of their actions? Should top executives at News International be axed? And what about the police and Parliamentary inquiries that may have ignored evidence of wrongdoing? Just how far does this escalate? Share your thoughts in the comments below and vote in our poll.




Who is ultimately responsible for the U.K. phone-hacking scandal?online survey

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July 07 2011

21:59

UK Phone-Hacking Scandal Shows Clash of Privacy with Need to Know

British journalism has undergone one of the most radical weeks in several decades this week.

398px-Rupert_Murdoch_2011_Shankbone_3.JPG

"Rocked," "chaos," "shocking" -- use whatever adjectives you like, but news this week that the News of the World (NOTW) tabloid hacked into the phones of child murder victims, families of July 7, 2005 terror attacks and parents of soldiers killed in action has turned the stomachs of much of Britain.

Now Rupert Murdoch's News International has shut down the NOTW after 168 years. This weekend will be the last edition of Britain's biggest selling newspaper.

The public appetite for information, particularly about celebrities and major news stories is insatiable -- until it becomes an intrusion into your own individual life. Is the duty to provide information more important to society as a whole than individual privacy? Does the civil "public interest" test outweigh the private protection of an individual?

'Hackgate'

The phone hacking scandal, or "hackgate" as some have dubbed it on Twitter, is a long-running saga and the New York Times Magazine investigation last year remains the best and most detailed single explanation. The Guardian has steadfastly kept attention on the matter.

As a basic summary, a reporter or private investigator would dial into the cell phone of a celebrity, politician or other public figure and then use a four-digit PIN number to access the voicemail. Many people never even change the PIN on their mobile voicemail or know how to do that. Investigators might pose as the celebrity in question and call the cell carrier saying they lost their PIN and need to reset it.

guardian phone hacking.jpg

The technique first began to unravel in 2005 when messages to Royal family aides were appearing read and saved, even though they hadn't heard them.

That eventually led to the conviction of NOTW Royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Police said Mulcaire's notebook had thousands of names and corresponding details of cell phone numbers and PIN numbers.

Since then, attention has always been on which celebrities, MPs or other public figures had their phones hacked -- a practice which is illegal, except by the security services with a court order.

A Widening Scandal

That was until this week. When it emerged on Monday that Mulcaire had accessed the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler who went missing, and deleted messages in some cases giving the impression she was still alive to worried family members, the public reacted. Only on this past June 23 a man was convicted of murdering the schoolgirl so it was still fresh in the public's mind.

The revelations have continued, with more alleged hacking vicitms: the parents of murdered children Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002, the family members of victims of the London terror attacks on July 7, 2005, and the parents of fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has also been revealed that up to five Metropolitan Police may have been paid bribes of £100,000 for information, from the same force that was supposed to be investigating the allegations of phone hacking, throwing the entire voracity of the inquiry into question.

So, how widespread is the practice of phone hacking? There have been reports -- by the New York Times feature last year in particular -- that other newspapers may have bought information obtained through phone hacking, or phone hacked directly, or that the technique was common at the NOTW. Although there have been a handful of arrests from within the NOTW, nobody has ever been charged beyond the original Royal reporter and private investigator. No other newspapers have yet been identified by police.

Pushing the Boundaries

I know a fair number of reporters and not one of them would engage in illegal activity for a story. Have we sometimes pushed boundaries? Of course. Do we sometimes feel a bit questionable afterwards? Yes. We're human.

When a newspaper told me they wanted a picture of school pupils but with "no fatties, uglies or ethnics," they apologized but that was the style of the paper. That's not illegal, but it's not the journalism I believe in.

Stories are regularly "spiked" because of the biases or agenda of a paper. Thankfully the UK has enough publications that almost any story can end up in print eventually, despite those barriers.

This story is still moving rapidly. Advertisers were pulling out of the paper. Ford was the first, very early on after the revelations and before any social media campaign really got going.

Social Media Pushes Advertisers Out

Mitsubishi said they were second on Tuesday as "morally right" to suspend advertising with a paper. Based on a suggestion from one of their Facebook followers, they are diverting the money to a children's charity instead.

As the week went on and the public identified which advertisers were in the weekly paper -- particularly thanks to data from the Guardian -- many other firms have pulled the plug, including the Royal British Legion on Thursday morning.

tesco campaign.jpg

Tesco, the UK's largest food retailer, said they wanted the police investigation to take its course, even while people on Twitter and Facebook bombarded them demanding they pull their advertising.

The Co-operative Group confirmed they heard from members by email, phone and via Facebook and Twitter while they were already reviewing their advertising, which they have now suspended.

Airlines, phone companies, the Post Office, and others have all pulled their advertising. One parody story even joked that Fish Refusing to Be Wrapped in the News of the World.

Other social media suggestions have included canceling subscriptions to Sky TV (i.e. BSkyB) which News International is trying to buy, or avoiding shops that sell the paper.

Closing NOTW

And then late on Thursday afternoon, News International chairman and Rupert's son James Murdoch told staff that the good work of the paper had "been sullied by behaviour that was wrong -- indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company."

james murdoch.jpg

"The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself," he said.

Ultimately, the paper was in decline already. Circulation of the NOTW fell from 4,104,227 in October 2001 to 2,606,397 in April 2011, a drop of 36.5 percent. That is a significant pressure on any paper.

Total sales for 10 Sunday papers in October 2001 was 14,044,396. That has plummeted to 9,082,065 as of April, a drop of 35.3 percent. But the UK remains one of the most read newspaper markets in the world.

One non-press colleague said yesterday: "Everyone talks about freedom of the press. They've had their chance. Take it away."

Hundreds of people have worked for the NOTW as staff, hundreds more as contributors, and thousands more have been willingly quoted in the paper.

The actions of a handful of reporters or those they hire does not in any way dissuade me from the importance of journalism, a free press or a "smart, fearless journalism," as Mother Jones magazine aptly puts it.

Feeding the News Appetite

I personally don't know any reporters who lack souls. We don't exist in such realms of black or white, good or evil. But I know all of us are under pressure to feed the ever increasing news appetite, often within ever shrinking offices of demanding firms with expectant shareholders.

In one case, a colleague was required to supply one story each week on Harry Potter author JK Rowling, no matter what. "No" isn't an answer to the boss. They achieved those results perfectly ethically.

To interpret pressure as justifying unethical and illegal practices is a choice of individuals. They are culpable, as are any bosses who knew of them.

However wrong the hacking activities were and are, many of those leaping to condemn them are not without bias themselves.

Broadsheet newspapers are almost gloating at the peril of the tabloid press which disgusts, but outsells, them.

MPs have repeatedly been caught in adulterous or worse behavior by the tabloid press over the years, but would never dare speak out against News International prior to the current public furor.

And government opponents see this as a chance to extract blood from Prime Minister David Cameron for making the mistake of hiring former NOTW editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief (who might be arrested tomorrow).

Final Consequences

Ultimately we have a clash of what my retired philosophy professor father refers to as the "social duty to provide as much information as possible", and the duty of "non injury to others." So which trumps which?

The question now is what will happen in this Sunday's last ever NOTW. What will the NOTW put on its front page (one tweet suggested the word "Sowwy" and a picture of a kitten)? Will it come back in another form in a few months?

When the Sun published lies about the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, it has arguably never recovered sales in Liverpool and is still reviled. That may well have happened to the NOTW, but would have requited more than 2.6 million customers to switch off to the celeb gossip and "real life" coverage they are in the habit of devouring. Has the Murdoch empire now successfully drawn a line under this sordid tale by closing the paper?

It is only one product -- the conflicting appetites for information and privacy are not going anywhere any time soon.

Disclaimer: I have, a few years ago now, been paid for freelance stories and tips by the Scottish editions of the News of the World and the daily sister paper, The Sun, and more recently by the Sunday Times. I stand by those individual stories.

Photo of Rupert Murdoch by David Shankbone via Wikipedia.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

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