Trouble in Murdochland

What began with a tabloid exclusive about Prince William’s knee could yet bring Murdoch to his own knees

Just as allegedly false Fox News tweets make headlines, the British end of the Murdoch operation is suddenly coping with a messy scandal that unexpectedly turned disastrous just as President Obama was supposedly assassinated.

Shenanigans involving Murdoch’s journalists paying for the services of a mobile phone hacker just would not go away, but now the gravity of the allegations have turning mass public opinion against the Murdoch press, though it could be fleeting disgust.

What began with a tabloid exclusive about Prince William’s knee — you couldn’t make this up! — could yet bring Murdoch to his own knees.

For months, royals and celebrities have been entangled with Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid the "News of the World," lampooned by Private Eye as the News of the Screws — so you can guess its editorial priorities. That the scandal ran on was partly due to the tenacity of Sienna Miller and especially the Guardian.

What hindered the momentum of the investigation was the police dragging their heels, though the reason was already in the public domain. Though tonight in London that side of the story is taking on a life of its own too with police now investigating their own ranks.

As so often in life an unexpected turn of events changes everything. Recently a convicted killer was found guilty of the murder of 13-year old Milly Dowler in 2002. Her family’s treatment at the hands of the defence lawyer has led to a public outcry and calls for a change in the law.

Even Murdoch’s daily tabloid, the Sun, was in on the act. The public sympathy for this family cannot be overstated. Then on Monday the Guardian broke the story that Murdoch’s paper had hacked and deleted the murdered teenager’s phone messages at the time of her abduction, leading the police and her parents to believe she was still alive.

As if that wasn’t enough they have now also been accused of tampering with the messages of the parents of two murdered schoolgirls in what was one of the most poignant crimes in recent British history.

Like some kind of perverse exclusive the other papers have managed to give the Britsh public ever more heinous revelations. The relatives of the London al Qaeda 7/7 bomb victims have been hacked. The mobiles of the victims themselves could have been hacked for the desperate calls of their relatives. The parents of serviceman in killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hacked.

Since the TNOW was the British Legion’s media partner in raising awareness of the plight of wounded veterans, the implication is the paper had privileged access to the families it has betrayed with a facade of patriotism. Since the number of hacking victims now runs into thousands it is perfectly possible that Murdoch’s lackeys have compromised the privacy of all the parents in search of exclusives!

These vile interventions have given the story astounding momentum. Ford has withdrawn advertising and others are threatening to do so and Parliament has had an emergency debate. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Murdoch as he was due to finalise his control of the satellite operation Sky. Even the Financial Times has waded in.

Probably the most repellent aspect of this business is the insistence of those at the top that they didn’t know anything, they didn’t see anything, and they didn’t sanction anything… while editing newspapers that were full of exclusives from the tooth fairy! Of course the utter heartlessness of these methods to get a story are being blamed on the editor at the time, Rebekah Brooks, who has long been one of Murdoch’s most trusted lieutenants despite a clumsy appearance in public.

She is determined to tough it out, and she could succeed. Not only does she know where all the bodies are buried, she has her own shovel and is brazen to the core with it.

However the hacker, Glenn Mulcaire, rather helpfully documented all requests and now, rather predictably, he’s blaming his employers. Though with thousands of pages of detailed notes, the Murdoch empire has never been so vulnerable. Ultimately this could be another nail in the coffin of traditional media; even the virtuous and responsible outlets will suffer the repercussions of this.

It not news to anyone that Murdoch has a battalions of enemies, but for the first in his career their ranks are emboldened, smelling blood in the water. Make no mistake — events may be explosive but this is only the beginning.

The political and legal implications could be immense. Our Prime Minister in our wobbly coalition government is up to his neck in this, morally anyway.

As Peter Oborne details, he employed Andy Coulson from the News of the World after the paper’s royal correspondent was imprisoned on his watch, and stood by him as stench became unbearable. Coulson is expected to be the first arrested on Friday morning and could even face a separate perjury trial on top of the hacking charges.

Both the Telegraph and the Guardian are blogging live as the story unfolds.

I doubt Rupert’s enjoying Sun Valley.

Mark Lynch lives and works in London, where he writes an online novel, The Republic of Truth, about teen survivors of a climate disaster.