Paper that blazed a trail for scandal goes out on a new low
Published 08/07/2011 | 05:00
From its very first edition in 1843, the 'News of the World' took pride in causing scandal and excitement with its coverage. That new paper's first lead story was a classic Victorian sensation, the lurid tale of a female chemist raped and thrown into the River Thames.
That same dedication to revealing eye-catching and gut-wrenching details of human misbehaviour would propel the paper to a central place in Britain's public imagination, and eventually, over the cliff-edge to destruction.
By the 1950s the paper was selling nine million copies each Sunday, making it the biggest-selling paper in the English-speaking world. And in 1969, it was bought by Rupert Murdoch.
In 2000, Rebekah Brooks took the chair once held by Emsley Carr, one of the greatest editors in Fleet Street history.
She held the post for three years before a promotion to edit 'The Sun', her place taken by her deputy, Andy Coulson.
Under Brooks and then Coulson, the 'News of the World' was a paper at the peak of its power, trampling over its competition with a string of classic tabloid exclusives: from David Beckham's affair with his nanny to Prince Harry's drug-taking.
Yet for all the agenda-setting front pages, it was two tiny stories tucked away on an inside page that began the chain of events that destroyed the newspaper.
In November 2005, Clive Goodman, the paper's royal editor, wrote a brief story revealing that Prince William had strained a tendon in his knee and sought medical advice. A week later, he revealed that the prince had borrowed some broadcasting equipment from his friend Tom Bradby, an ITV journalist.
The stories baffled royal officials, since so few people knew about them. In a conversation between Bradby and William, the two established that the information could only have come from voicemails they had left one another.
Those suspicions sparked a police inquiry. In January 2007, Goodman was jailed for four months. With him was Glen Mulcaire, a private investigator who had worked extensively for the 'News of the World'.
News International insisted that Goodman had acted alone, the only journalist who had dealt with Mulcaire. Although he insisted he knew nothing of Goodman's actions, Coulson resigned over the affair.
However, in a move that was arguably decisive in the events that followed, he was not out of work for long. That summer, he joined the staff of David Cameron, the Conservative leader.
Coulson's place at Cameron's side meant that what was once regarded by some as media village gossip now also had an overtly political dimension.
In July 2009, the story was back on the front pages. The 'Guardian' reported that Mulcaire's work for the 'News of the World' went far beyond the offences so far admitted in court.
A number of public figures were said to have had their voicemail messages illegally accessed: John Prescott, the former UK deputy prime minister, Boris Johnson, the London mayor, even Brooks herself.
The claims inevitably caused a political storm, and raised questions about why the police team that investigated Goodman and Mulcaire had not ranged further in their research.
John Yates, the senior Metropolitan Police commander who investigated Labour's 'cash for peerages' scandal, was asked to examine another scandal of immense delicacy and controversy. In a decision that now haunts Scotland Yard, Yates decided that "no further investigation is required".
By contrast, the Commons select committee on culture, media and sport, decided to re-open its investigations into phone hacking.
Over the following months, the scandal -- and News International's attempts to suppress it -- seeped further into the public arena.
Celebrity PR adviser Max Clifford dropped a civil action against the paper after receiving a £1m (e1.1m) payment.
In February last year, the MPs on the culture committee fiercely criticised the 'News of the World' and accused its management of trying to "conceal the truth" about its activities.
With each new revelation, Cameron faced questions about Coulson, but stood by his adviser.
Adding yet another layer of complexity to the saga, in June 2010, Murdoch's News Corporation launched a bid to buy the 60pc of British Sky Broadcasting it did not already own.
Murdoch's attempt to take complete control of the broadcaster he created would require government approval, once again turning attention on the relationship between Murdoch's companies and politicians.
Despite its uniquely British nature, the next act of the drama was started by American journalists, from 'The New York Times'. In September last year, that paper reported former staff saying that phone hacking had been widespread at the 'News of the World', that the police had turned a blind eye, and that Coulson had been centrally involved.
The report began another wave of claims and disclosures, as a growing list of celebrities launched civil lawsuits against the 'News of the World' for invading their privacy. As those cases squeezed out more details of the hacking, News International abandoned its "rogue reporter" claim about Goodman, admitting that other staff had been involved. A news editor who had worked closely with Coulson was suspended, and later fired.
Neither his repeated denials nor Cameron's support could save Coulson, who resigned in January. A week later, Scotland Yard launched another inquiry.
For the 'News of the World', trouble only grew. In April, it accepted liability in several civil suits, and made more, huge compensation payments. The police began to arrest 'News of the World' journalists.
Yet for all the political fury and journalistic fascination over the story, it had been almost entirely confined to the detached demi-monde of celebrities, sports stars, politicians and hacks. In short, no "real people", worthy of genuine public sympathy, had been directly affected.
This week, that changed. On Monday, lawyers for the family of Milly Dowler, abducted and murdered in 2002 aged 13, said they had been contacted by Scotland Yard. The story was almost too shocking: the 'News of the World' operatives had accessed her voicemail after her disappearance. By deleting messages left there, they gave her family false hope that she was still alive.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, called for Brooks to resign.
Stunning revelations followed at almost dizzying speed. First, the news that the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, murdered in Soham in 2002, were warned by detectives that their voicemails may have been accessed. Then it was the families of those killed by terrorists on July 7, 2005.
Finally it was the grieving families of UK service personnel killed on duty who were revealed as victims of the newspaper's insatiable appetite for sensation. (©Daily Telegraph, London)