In 2008, two men associated with a London tabloid were found guilty of hacking into the cellphone voice mail messages of the royal family and others. But in the last few months there have been indications that the scandal extends much further. Indeed hundreds of people may have had their privacy violated and the editor of the tabloid is now communications director for the new British Prime Minister. BBC Radio host Steve Hewlett explains the scope of Hack-Gate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. And now an old scandal gets new life. In 2006, journalist Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, working for Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid News of the World, were caught illegally accessing the voice mail messages of the Royal Family. This invasion of privacy was just another tactic in Britain’s bare-knuckle tabloid war, and when the two men pled guilty it seemed that the case was closed, that is, until a recent New York Times Magazine article nudged the affair back into the limelight with some new developments. First, many more phones were hacked than was originally thought. Second, there is renewed scrutiny of Scotland Yard’s investigation into the affair, which had been mysteriously curtailed. Third, the editor of The News of the World at the time, Andy Coulson, who denied knowledge of the hacking, has since become the communications director for the U.K.’s new Prime Minister, David Cameron. Steve Hewlett is a columnist for The Guardian newspaper and host of The Media Show on the BBC. Steve, welcome to OTM.
STEVE HEWLETT: Howdy.
BOB GARFIELD: So this story seems to begin with one reporter and a private dick he was working with hacking the cell phones of some royals. Who did they hack, how did they do it?
STEVE HEWLETT: They hacked into the mobile voice mailboxes of some close royal aides; that’s aides to Prince William and Harry. Because most people don't change the factory default settings on their voice mailboxes –
[BOB LAUGHS] – you know, it’s 0-0-0-0 or four 3s or four 9s, or whatever it is, in one sense this was not very hard. And there is reason to think that lots of people, private detectives, journalists and others, were doing it. Now, it was made illegal by the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act in 2000, and it was subsequent to that act that Glenn Mulcaire, the private detective, and Clive Goodman, The News of the World’s royal editor, were caught doing it.
BOB GARFIELD: And convicted, and did they go to jail?
STEVE HEWLETT: Yes, convicted, went to jail. And then when they emerged from jail signed deals with News International for money, sort of severance deals, which had silence clauses in them. The New York Times comes along and restarts the whole thing with a number of people, 91 I think it was, where the police had found both their mobile number and their PIN number in the possession of Mulcaire. Many of these people, of course, had not been told by the police –
[BOB LAUGHS] - that they might have been hacked. So two questions arise following The New York Times, first of all, new questions about whether Coulson could possibly not have known and questions about what the police had done.
BOB GARFIELD: If the police had taken half measures, why they did so.
STEVE HEWLETT: That’s right, why they hadn't pushed it further. There are two ways to look at this. One way says, look, it was SO-13, I think it was, a Special Operations unit, a part of the Metropolitan Police that does anti-terrorism and diplomatic and royal protection. Now, the reason they were involved in the case in the first place is because, remember, it started with hacking into the voice mailboxes of senior royal aides. Now, these people have to deal with, you know, terrorism, tube trains being blown up, you name it. So they could justifiably argue, I think, that they had rather more important things to do. On the other hand, there is the lurking suspicion that what really bothered them was what happened if you kept pulling at this piece of string, because the police and newspapers have relationships which, for good or ill, are frequently not disclosed, involve the panning of information, sometimes money. So the conspiracy theory has it that if you keep pulling at this piece of string, something very nasty turns up.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve, I don't know if you saw Jack Shafer’s piece in Slate but he posits that now that all these names of other hack victims have begun to percolate up and the litigation is beginning to flow, and because of the government inquiry into Scotland Yard’s handling of the investigation and because of the media coverage, that all of that in time will conspire to get to the bottom of all of this.
STEVE HEWLETT: I think that’s probably right. I mean, there are a string of things happening. The police inquiry continues. How far that gets, we will see, but they're under quite a lot of pressure now to demonstrate they're doing it properly. There are three parliamentary committees going to look at it, and then the Press Complaints Commission, you know, which is the UK press watchdog. They all believe that they've been misled at some point in this process. And, as you point out, critically, there are all the legal actions. Now, it is characteristic of some of these legal actions that they will quite likely have the capacity to turn up information which could prove extremely embarrassing.
BOB GARFIELD: Going right up to the prime minister.
STEVE HEWLETT: Well, certainly up to his press aide, yes, Andy Coulson. The idea this could have happened in his newsroom, when he hadn't got the foggiest idea about it, is really with incredulity sort of left, right and center.
BOB GARFIELD: Now to the American ear the notion of tabloid reporters eavesdropping on voice mail messages, is pretty shocking, actually. [LAUGHS] I’m curious, in the U.K. did it even raise eyebrows, originally? I mean, Fleet Street standard operating procedure is apparently quite different from what we are accustomed to here.
STEVE HEWLETT: The idea that you might ride roughshod over somebody’s rights to privacy and so on in pursuit of something that was justified in the public interest, that’s not alien to the British journalistic culture. There was a guy called Benji the Binman, he was known as, who famously [LAUGHS] would hang around people’s houses and when they put their rubbish out he'd go through the bins, and he'd turn up all sorts of stuff. When people thought, hang on a minute, journalists might be hacking my mobile phone messages, even here - and we perhaps, you know, are slightly inured to some of their tabloid tactics – that appeared right from the outset to be a step too far.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you so much.
STEVE HEWLETT: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve Hewlett is a columnist for The Guardian and host of The Media Show on BBC Radio.