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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder