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Why the UK Phone Hacking Scandal Still Matters


Phone hacking is the scandal the UK just can’t seem to shake off.

He is back in the headlines more than a decade after a wave of public anger led to the closure of the country’s best-selling Sunday newspaper, a year-long public inquiry and an overhaul of the regulations. Prince Harry, Elton John and a group of other notable names are suing Associated Newspapers Ltd., owner of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, for allegedly committing unlawful acts including tapping telephone calls and unlawfully accessing to private information. The company flatly denied the charges, calling them “absurd smears.”

The phone hack turned the activities of the British newspaper industry into a major global story, providing a stream of revelations and live TV dramas (including the ‘humblest day’ of Rupert Murdoch’s life) for rival all the celebrity exclusives that are the stock in trade of the popular tabloid press. Those who have followed the saga from other parts of the world may wonder when it will finally be buried and why Britain seems particularly plagued by a systemic problem of unethical behavior in parts of the fundraising industry. information.

In reality, the scandal never went away. Lawsuits have continued to be filed since an investigation by retired judge Brian Leveson ended in 2012, and have made their way through the courts. These generally relate to activities undertaken in the 1990s and 2000s, during the height of phone hacking. (Who, after all, uses voicemail more, in the age of WhatsApp and other smartphone text messaging systems?) Hamlins LLP, which represents Prince Harry and others, has not set a timeline. for the allegations on October 6. statement. In its rebuttal, Associated Newspapers said the stories were up to 30 years old. Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail, has repeatedly denied that any phone hacks took place within the group.

It is still an important development. Along with a separate legal action brought by former MP Simon Hughes, it is the first such legal action against Mail headlines, threatening to drag Britain’s most successful newspaper group in recent years into a quagmire that cost Murdoch’s News Corp more than a billion dollars. , by some estimates, and weighed in on Mirror Group Newspapers. Indeed, Associated Newspapers – which is controlled by the Harmsworth family – called the action a “pre-planned and orchestrated attempt to embroil Mail headlines in the phone-hacking scandal”.

Alongside celebrities such as Liz Hurley and Sadie Frost, the presence of one litigant in particular is potentially damaging to the Mail group: Doreen Lawrence, who like others alleges the Daily Mail misused her private information. Her teenage son Stephen was murdered in an unprovoked racist attack in 1993, and the Daily Mail campaigned for his killers to be brought to justice. The newspaper has often presented this cause celebre as an example of the beneficial power of its journalism, which has been criticized for its negative portrayals of migrants and other groups.

There is a symmetry here. In 2011, another murdered teenager played a central role in the disappearance of News of the World. A wave of public revulsion followed reports that her reporters had hacked into Milly Dowler’s voicemails. In response, Murdoch shut down the newspaper, which at the time was Britain’s leading Sunday market headline. This position is now held by the Mail on Sunday.

As well as dealing a reputational blow to the Mail group, Lawrence’s allegations could give further public momentum to the cause of regulatory reform. There remains unfinished business from the Leveson investigations ten years ago. A second part of the investigation was to probe relations between the press and the police. It was postponed pending the conclusion of court cases (former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was among those who went to jail) and then abandoned entirely by the Conservative government.

“There’s more to study,” said Nathan Sparkes, chief executive of Hacked Off, a campaign group pushing for Leveson 2 to go forward, in an interview. The group says the Independent Press Standards Organisation, the self-regulatory body set up after the first investigation, is not fit for purpose. Most national newspapers joined IPSO, although it fell short of Leveson’s recommendations for independence and effectiveness. Those who declined to join include broadsheets such as the Financial Times, the Independent and the Guardian – which first broke the phone-hacking scandal.

Despite all the controversy and upheaval of a decade ago, the industry’s success in establishing yet another ineffective regulator and undertaking further investigation into its practices suggests that the fundamental power nexus between the press and politicians remains essentially intact. This symbiotic structure allowed mainstream newspapers to weather periodic scandals over unethical behavior, creating a sense of impunity that arguably allowed abuses to flourish. “They don’t want to be fiercely regulated,” says Paul Lashmar, who spent 40 years as an investigative journalist at news agencies such as The Observer and now teaches in the journalism department at City University London. “They resisted at every turn.”

Why is the UK like this? The answer lies in the economic and cultural particularities of the British journalistic landscape. The country is small and compact enough to have a national newspaper market, and therefore inordinate power rests with those who can dominate. The Daily Mail sells more print copies than any newspaper in the United States, a much larger but more fragmented market.

A stark example of the influence the popular press wields over politicians came during the Leveson investigation of Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun, the tabloid News Corp. which for decades was Britain’s best-selling daily. MacKenzie described how then-Prime Minister John Major called him the night Britain was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 to ask how the story would be told in the next day’s newspaper. “Well, actually, I’ve got a bucket of shit on my desk, Prime Minister, and I’m going to pour it all over you,” MacKenzie said. (Major said he doesn’t recall that conversation.) If the setting carried over to the United States, it’s hard to imagine Joe Biden making a similar call to the editor of the New York Post.

Equally important, tabloid culture is the central influence of the UK market, rather than being a fringe offshoot as in some countries. Unlike the sober and earnest pursuit of serious journalism, the hunt for tabloid stories is much more of a game. For those who like to gamble, it’s about winning at all costs. Tabloids are a game of circulation, and what sells newspapers in this fiercely competitive industry are exclusive stories, especially about high-profile public figures. You don’t need a McKinsey briefing note to tell you that people will behave the way they are told to behave. Games are not inherently moral. Players will do what they can to win within the rules. And if the rules aren’t particularly clear, or if the referee constantly looks away…

Broadsheets compete on a more complex array of factors, so they are not subject to the same market pressures. This is perhaps one of the reasons why newspaper industries in other countries have not encountered problems with unethical or illegal conduct on such an industrial scale as in Britain. .

A final element of the mix must be taken into account: the Internet. During the worst excesses of the phone-hacking scandal, newspapers were already losing print sales to online competitors. Ad spend has migrated to Google and other web providers, reducing revenue and increasing pressure for exclusives that will keep readers coming back. In 2020, the Daily Mail said it had topped the Sun’s monthly print circulation for the first time in 42 years. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Mail is number 1 not because it grows but because it contracts less quickly. The newspaper sold 840,000 copies a day in August. Two decades earlier, it sold 2.4 million, while The Sun moved 3.7 million.

Newspapers have had some success building their own online operations, particularly the Mail Group, of which MailOnline was the world’s sixth most visited news site in September, according to Press Gazette, a trade newspaper. This growth has not been sufficient to offset the loss of print sales, at least for the time being. Daily Mail & General Trust Plc, which was taken private earlier this year by its founding family’s trust, said last month it would bring newsgathering closer together in its print and online editions to ‘free up resources’ . For all the political clout the tabloids retain, the financial story of the last few decades has been one of structural decline.

If phone hacking remains in the public eye, activists may have a second chance to push for a more meaningful model of self-regulation, especially as a change of government begins to look more likely. The blameless ordinary victims of such media abuse deserve more consideration. But there are already bigger things to worry about for those concerned about the health of the media landscape, particularly the increased consumption of news via social media, where disinformation and targeted influence operations can thrive. Young people get more of their news from TikTok. The ground is shifting beneath our feet, and before long phone hacking may start to look like a historical oddity. Generals always fight the last war, as the saying goes. It may be so again this time.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Meghan and Harry are not really money-shooters: Alex Webb

• How the Tories brought endless anarchy to the UK: John Authers

• Why I’m glad to live in crisis in Britain: Matthew Brooker

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian finance and politics. A former editor and bureau chief of Bloomberg News and associate business editor of the South China Morning Post, he is a CFA charterholder.

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