No One Should Be Surprised by Britain's Phone Hacking Scandal

By Tom Fenton

LONDON - The British establishment is suffering from a sudden epidemic of hypocrisy.

All sorts of important people have caught it - politicians, media moguls, the police, even Prime Minister David Cameron. All have been expressing shock and horror that Britain's leading tabloid newspaper, The News of the World, has been caught using sleazy and even illegal means in the pursuit of its brand of news.

That's like being surprised that dogs have fleas.

There is hardly anyone in Britain who did not know that The News of the World and its rivals will stoop to almost anything to come up with a scoop. Brits love their cheeky, no-holds-barred tabloid newspapers, especially the lower end of the business, and don't much care what means they use to nail pompous politicians, sports stars who cheat on their wives, or even relatives of the Queen who can be tempted to trade royal connections for cash.

The paper was famous for its tactics, one of which involved using a reporter posing as a wealthy Arab to meet with minor royals who are seen to be greedy and gullible. The Fake Sheikh scam was used on two of the Queen's daughters-in-law, the Countess of Wessex and the Duchess of York. Embarrassing for the royal family of course, but seen as good fun by the public.

Checkbook journalism is also widely practiced Britain. All the tabloids and some of the more respectable papers pay sources for stories. It has now been alleged that The News of the World even had the police on its payroll. The police presumably went along with this illegal practice because, like many in the British establishment, they curried the favor of the popular and powerful tabloids.

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Another tabloid practice widely used for years was fishing in important people's trashcans to come up with interesting stuff. And now we have the digital age equivalent of trashcan journalism - hacking into people's mobile phone messages.

The News of the World had allegedly been using private investigators to hack into the phone mail boxes of thousands of famous people. The police knew about this for years but dragged their feet in investigating what they apparently looked upon as minor law breaking.

This past week, The Guardian, a highly regarded British daily, blew the lid off what is now the biggest story in Britain when it revealed that not all the targets of The News of the World were rich and famous. In fact, they included the mobile phones of bereaved families of soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan and even the phone of a 13-year-old girl who was missing and believed to be held captive by a kidnapper but in fact was already dead.

All of a sudden, politicians who have cozied up to the popular press for years are lining up to express their outrage. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had hired as his Downing Street media advisor Andy Coulson, the man who was editor of The News of the World at the time when the paper was indulging in illegal phone hacking, has roundly condemned the practice and called for an immediate investigation.

The police, who collected cash for years in return for tips given to the paper, have arrested Coulson, and other arrests will follow.

Finally, Rupert Murdoch, the international media mogul, whose stable of British papers includes The News of the World, has announced he is closing down the country's best selling paper. Murdoch may say it is a matter of principle, but there is also the fact that he has been trying to buy a controlling interest in Britain's BSkyB pay television and fears a backlash from the phone hacking scandal.

Killing a 168-year-old newspaper would be a small price to pay for improving his chances of winning control of Britain's most lucrative broadcast business.

But, hypocritical or not, the wave of public disgust at the depth of the News of the World's phone hacking may block Murdoch from winning control of the satellite network.

Tom Fenton writes about the media for GlobalPost.

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