Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The UK's Phone-Hacking Scandal, and Why You Should Care About It (Plus Teaspooning)

So, as you may—or may not, for reasons that will become evident—have heard, there is an exploding phone hacking scandal in Britain, comprehensive coverage of which by the Guardian can be found here. The broadest gist is that a British tabloid hired a private investigator to hack into the voicemail boxes of famous or otherwise newsworthy people—and, in at least one particularly awful case, the voicemails of a murdered girl were deleted. More on that in a moment.

Although this happened in Britain (and only in Britain so far as we know), it's also an important story for the US and elsewhere, too, because the tabloid at the center of the story is the News of the World, which is owned by the UK subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, the same company that owns Fox in the US.

Shaker Richard Gadsden, who's a UK-based Shaker, put together a great summary of the phone-hacking scandal and its history, which I am publishing with his permission. First, some background:
Mobile phones (cellphones) have voicemail. You can access the voicemail from any other phone by dialing the call centre and putting in the phone number of the mailbox you want and the PIN. Unless the user has positively selected a PIN when they set up the phone, the PIN defaults to 0000 or 1111, depending on the network. Most people only ever call their voicemail from their own phone, and they don't need the PIN to get in from their own phone, so they never find out that the PIN even exists.

A Private Investigator, called Glenn Mulcaire, discovered that he could listen to the voicemails left for well-known people by calling into the call centre and putting in the right PIN. (It is believed that a number of other PIs were doing the same for other newspapers, but this has never been proven.)

He started selling the recordings he took of the voicemails to the News of the World, a tabloid newspaper here in the UK, owned by News International (the UK subsidiary of News Corp, which is the Murdoch media empire, including Fox in the US, and Sky here in the UK).

This originally came out in 2006, when it was found that he'd gained access to the voicemails of members of the Royal family; there was a police investigation at the time, Mulcaire and Clive Goodman (royal editor of the NoW at the time) were arrested and served time in prison. The editor at the time, Andy Coulson was sacked.
Fast forward three years, and Andy Coulson, after having become Director of Communications for the Conservative party, is now Director of Communications for the Prime Minister. The story might have died altogether, were it not for the fact that a 2009 Guardian investigation uncovered evidence of police malfeasance.

Back to Richard:
In 2009, the Guardian discovered that the police had ignored evidence collected from Mulcaire that lots of other people had been "phone-hacked", had not informed hundreds of other victims (including senior politicians and journalists at other newspapers). This became a political scandal, especially because [of Andy Coulson's prominent position in the Prime Minister's office]. There was a Select Committee enquiry, and a number of out-of-court settlements between NoW and alleged phone-hacking victims.

One of the reasons that the story continued in 2010 was that [the actress] Sienna Miller refused any out-of-court settlement with a confidentiality clause and insisted on extensive discovery in the courts; the other main reason was that the New York Times investigated it and found more connections between Andy Coulson as (then) editor and the scandal, which resulted in him resigning as Director of Communications on 21 January 2011.

The police have now restarted their investigation - it seems that they deliberately down-played the investigation originally because they have a close relationship with the NI papers that they didn't want to damage - but they started arresting people in bunches (at which point Sienna Miller accepted an out-of-court settlement as it looked like the facts were coming out anyway).
Again, the story may have effectively died here, as a shady tabloid unethically digging into celebrities' private lives is terrible, but sadly not particularly shocking. And, the wheels of justice seemed to be turning.

But the phone-hacking was even worse than it originally appeared.

On Monday, the Guardian published a heartbreaking update on the scandal in which it was revealed that the News of the World's private investigator, the aforementioned Glenn Mulcaire, had, in 2002, hacked into the voicemail of a missing 13-year-old girl named Milly Dowler, who had been, it was later discovered, murdered by a man named Levi Bellfield, who was convicted and sentenced to life last month for murdering Milly.

Mulcaire did not stop at merely listening to the messages on Milly's phone, though. From the Guardian's Monday piece:
As her friends and parents called and left messages imploring Milly to get in touch with them, the News of the World was listening and recording their every private word.

But the journalists at the News of the World then encountered a problem. Milly's voicemail box filled up and would accept no more messages. Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened – and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.

The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper's own intervention.
Truly contemptible, just an absolute abdication of even the merest traces of decency.

Naturally, the deletion of the voicemails not only gave Milly's family false hope; it also interfered with the police investigation.

Back to Richard:
This has now broken the story from the media pages onto the front pages of the newspapers, and much higher up the public consciousness.

In rapid succession, a number of other high-profile victims of crime have been found in the Mulcaire files - the victims of the Soham murders (another pair of young abducted girls) and some of the 7/7 victims too.
It's just beyond the beyond. I spent last night reading a ton of coverage of the phone-hacking, and it just left me feeling light-headed with revulsion and what I can only describe as dismay, though the word seems insufficient, at the entitlement, the callousness, the chilling lack of empathy which led to these actions.

And I fear that we have yet seen only the tip of this decidedly grim iceberg.

teaspoon icon

What we can do in response, however, is lift our teaspoons. Richard notes that advertisers have started pulling their ads from News of the World, and suggests: "One useful teaspoon would be to write to those advertisers and ask them to pull advertising from all News Corp owned media world-wide. Ford, as the first advertiser to pull out of NotW, would be a good one to start with, as they are big sponsors of Sky TV in the UK and of a number of Fox TV properties over there. Hitting the entire Murdoch empire, rather than just one newspaper (which they could just close down and then relaunch under a new name) would achieve far more in driving to some kind of responsible journalism."

For US Shakers, here's a list of Fox News sponsors here, for a start.

And here is a sample letter, which you are free to borrow in whole or in part:
Dear Fox News Advertiser,

I am writing to inform you that I will not purchase your products as long as you continue to advertise on Fox News.

As you are certainly aware, Fox News is a property of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, the UK subsidiary of which is deeply embroiled in a phone-hacking scandal in which his employees engaged in profoundly unethical ways, and, in least one case, possibly criminal ways, by interfering with a police investigation of a missing teenage girl. Nonetheless, Murdoch continues to stand behind those employees.

Your advertising dollars are supporting irresponsible, unethical, and dangerous journalism, abroad and very likely at home, too.

I urge you to stop advertising on Fox News immediately.

Sincerely,
[Name]
Please feel welcome and encouraged to leave in comments other ideas for teaspooning and/or additional advertisers in global Murdoch properties for contact.

My thanks to Richard for his valuable contributions to this piece.