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News Corp.'s Hacking Scandal Goes Nuclear

Latest revelations prompt major companies to pull ads

Rupert Murdoch | Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic

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LONDON—The News Corp. phone-hacking scandal seems in danger of spinning out of control. Following the revelations that News of the World journalists had hacked into the mobile phone of teenage schoolgirl Milly Dowler when she went missing in 2002 (she was later found murdered), the reaction of members of Parliament has been one of universal disgust. One MP, Chris Bryant, accused the News of the World of “playing God with a family’s emotions." An emergency House of Commons debate was convened Wednesday.

News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World when Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked—and who might have been a hacking victim herself—said in a memo to staff yesterday that the allegations were “almost too horrific to believe” and that she was sickened by them. However, she is resisting calls for her resignation.

Further revelations about victims of crime having their phones hacked have followed this morning. The parents of two other murdered girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, have been contacted by the Metropolitan Police and told that their mobile phones were hacked, as has Graham Foulkes, whose son was murdered in the 7/7 terrorist attacks of 2005. Foulkes said that he and his family waited for a week after the attacks for confirmation that their missing son had been killed: “My wife and I were kind of all over the place, we were chatting to friends on the phone, in a very personal and deeply emotional context—and the thought that somebody may have been listening to that just looking for a cheap headline is just horrendous.”

In a pointed challenge to Rupert Murdoch, Foulkes has said he would like to meet with the News of the World’s proprietor to discuss “the power he has." News International's director of corporate affairs, Simon Greenberg, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today program that such a meeting was “something we would consider." The fact that Murdoch himself might meet with a victim of phone hacking, something that was inconceivable a few days ago, demonstrates how dangerous a turn things have taken in the last couple of days.

Interestingly, Foulkes’ remarks echo a criticism made by Mr Justice Vos, the judge handling the forthcoming trial of phone hacking claims against the newspaper, who noted that News International was proceeding by way of admission when specific claims are made rather than by way of full disclosure. “I certainly think that News International needs to come clean, they need to accept their responsibility and their culpability, and they need to do the decent thing,” said Foulkes, “but I suppose they won’t.”

Recent events have even caused private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, the man originally at the center of the scandal, to break his silence after months in which he said nothing about the steady trickle of revelations. “Working for the News of the World was never easy,” he explained in a released statement. “There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results. I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically. But, at the time, I didn't understand that I had broken the law at all. I never had any intention of interfering with any police inquiry into any crime.”

Worst of all from Murdoch’s point of view, the News of the World brand is beginning to suffer serious damage. Readers are joining boycott campaigns on Facebook and Twitter in the thousands, while the Ford Motor Company, one of the newspaper’s biggest advertisers, has suspended its account, and other leading advertisers are doing the same. That includes Renault UK, Co-Operative Foods, Mitsubishi, Lloyds Banking Group, Virgin Holidays, and Coca-Cola. 

 

In a memorable quip, the actor Hugh Grant, a long-standing critic of the tabloid press, has said that Rebekah Brooks pledging yesterday to root out the culprits in the phone hacking saga is akin to Hitler offering to clear up the Nazi Party.