Phone-hacking: the US reaction

How the papers in America have reacted to the scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch's News International.

New York Times

This newspaper carried out a lengthy investigation into phone-hacking at the News of the World in September 2010. Today, Don Van Natta Jr and Ravi Somaiya allege that police officers had their phones hacked. These claims are particularly interesting on the day that police officers face a committee of MPs:

Shortly after Scotland Yard began its initial criminal inquiry of phone hacking by The News of the World in 2006, five senior police investigators discovered that their own cellphone messages had been targeted by the tabloid and had most likely been listened to.

The disclosure, based on interviews with current and former officials, raises the question of whether senior investigators feared that if they aggressively investigated, the News of the World would punish them with splashy articles about their private lives. Some of their secrets, tabloid-ready, eventually emerged in other news outlets.

Washington Post

Erik Wemple derides claims that the scandal will cause Murdoch's empire to crumble. Discussing News Corporation's annual report, he says:

One lesson from the report: Britain cannot threaten News Corp. It can harrumph; it can preach; it can launch "inquiries"; but it is too much of a little rancho to puncture News Corp...

As Murdoch himself boasts, 2010 was a good year for News Corp. Among the few dark corners of the document is this: "For the fiscal year ended June 30, 2010, the U.K. newspapers' revenues decreased 2% as compared to fiscal 2009, primarily due to lower circulation revenues..."

So here's a scenario: The British public outcry about News of the World, the Sun and the Times forces the company to bail on those properties all together. Good! News Corp. dumps money-losing/marginally profitable newspapers. At the same time, it retains its state-of-the-art British presses, printing the titles of any outfit that wants to distribute newsprint.

Boston Globe

Cassandra Vinograd speculates about the possible fall out of these UK-based allegations on Murdoch's US operations:

Legal analysts said yesterday it is possible Murdoch's US companies might face legal actions because of the shady practices at the News of the World. In the United States, Murdoch owns Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post, among other holdings.

They said Murdoch's News Corp. might be liable to criminal prosecution under the 1977 Corrupt Foreign Practices Act, a broad act designed to prosecute executives who bribe foreign officials in exchange for large contracts.

Los Angeles Times

Joe Flint wonders whether the same practices took place in the US:

So far, the fallout from the News of the World debacle has been mostly limited to Britain. However, as the coverage continues to intensify around the globe, it is giving new ammunition to critics of Murdoch and News Corp. in the United States.

"It is becoming increasingly clear this scandal was not perpetrated by a few rogue reporters, but was systematically orchestrated at the highest levels of News Corp.," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has called for a congressional investigation of News Corp. "If Mr. Murdoch's employees can be so brazen as to target the British prime minister, then it is not unreasonable to believe they also might hack into the voice mails of American politicians and citizens."

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.