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Cheat sheet: News of the World and phone hacking

You know it’s a big deal when Britain’s largest selling tabloid is shut down overnight. Closed. Full stop.

The News of the World, which sells about 2.6 million copies every week, will go to print for the last time on Sunday. It’s been brought down by one of the most wide-ranging scandals in British history. According to some it’s the scandal that should be ‘on the front page of every newspaper in the world’. A scandal not just of the media industry but of the political spheres on both sides. James Murdoch released a statement today [July 7, 2011] saying the newspaper had failed in its duty to keep checks on itself and that ‘a few wrongdoers’ had turned a good newsroom bad. He said he had authorised out of court payments to phone hacking victims and now realised ‘this was wrong’.

As the sights are aimed at senior News executives, 500 journalists and staff lose their jobs in the closing sacrifice of the 168-year-old paper.

UPDATE: Check out this EXTRAORDINARY interview with a former NOTW ‘journalist’ who talks freely about all the phones he tapped – including Kylie’s, Princess Diana’s and Hugh Grant’s:

Let’s put the pieces of this together.

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What is phone hacking exactly?

Phone hacking basically means somebody with the right know-how (in this case, private investigators) can intercept voicemail messages of private mobile phones. Yours, if they really wanted to. Sienna Miller’s phone was hacked. In this scandal News of the World evidently used phone hacks of a means of gaining access to private conversations and messages.

When did this scandal begin?

This all dates back to 2006 when the newspaper’s Royals Editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire were arrested, charged and imprisoned for taking out illegal phone hacks on members of the royal family. At the time the paper’s management said this was a case of a journalist ‘gone rogue’ and scarcely any more of the matter was aired. Obviously, doubts continued. So, it seems, did the phone hacking.

What has happened since then?

The lid was blown off a cover-up of immense proportions. Fresh evidence was brought to London’s Metropolitan Police in February this year which led them to believe – as some had been saying in the intervening years – that News of the World was presiding over one of the largest breaches of personal privacy in recorded history. Not just that it had ‘rogue’ reporters, but that it knew about, commissioned and paid for phone hacks on an unprecedented scale.

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Now it appears there may be as many as 7000 victims of the phone hacking scandal. From celebrities, royals, politicians, sports stars and senior members of the News empire itself. Possibly even the families of dead soldiers. Phone hacking apparently became the modus operandi of the News of the World. But nobody said anything.

News International CEO Rebekah Brooks

What has taken so long to bring this to light?

The media look out for the media, some say. In the United Kingdom the only newspaper really pushing the investigation of the phone hacks was The Guardian. It was conspicuous in its campaign because everybody else was silent. Rupert Murdoch owns about a third of the press in Britain so that explains at least some of it.

But as new evidence came to pass, it took a dead girl’s phone to really stir outrage.

Evidence suggests News of the World hacked and intercepted the voicemail messages of murder victim Milly Dowler who, at the time, had gone missing. Journalists were deleting messages and hoping more would be left. The hacks led the girl’s family to believe she was still alive and accessing her phone. It wasn’t. She had been murdered.

It has also now been revealed that police are investigating whether victims of the 7/7 London bombings had their phones hacked as well.

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What were the politicians doing in all of this?

Good question. Britain’s new Prime Minister David Cameron hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his senior press secretary when he came into power. David Cameron and his family are also riding pals with News International CEO and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks. The have country properties just 2 kilometres apart. Andy Coulson was forced to resign his position when the phone hacking scandal widened and is now facing charges himself. He is expected to be arrested in the next day.

The leader of the Labour Opposition Ed Miliband took time to come to the scandal. Why? According to most analysts, because he and many others feared the backlash of the Murdoch majority press. He waited for the anger and outrage to reach a critical mass very recently before jumping in and calling for the resignation of News International CEO Rebekah Brooks.

News International chairman James Murdoch

So, they shut the paper down?

Yup, announced this morning by James Murdoch. But why? Some say it’s a stroke of ‘evil genius’ to avoid lax laws in Britain which allow company assets – and in a round-about way company records – to be kept out of the hands of investigators through liquidation. Given the conduct of the News of the World in recent times, this isn’t a far-out concept. In America for instance legal matters can force the hand of companies but this is not the case in Britain.

James Murdoch said the paper would contain no advertisements. That might be because a growing list of major advertisers pulled their business after public protest. Millions and millions of pounds of business. Murdoch said any profits from the last and final Sunday paper would go to charity. But give it takes about $5 to print each average-sized paper, it’s hard to imagine there would be any money left to give.

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What’s the bigger picture here?

It’s all about the empire. Murdoch apparently wants to keep his heir-apparent James Murdoch safe, but may not be able to do so for long. He has resisted firing Rebekah Brooks despite her being at the helm when phone hacking was apparently rife. Shutting down the newspaper was meant to be the final move, ‘drawing a line under the scandal’ so it doesn’t interfere with his bid to buy television channel BSkyB. This, obviously, has now been jeopardised.

This is it: the last News of the World front page.

Whether Murdoch intends to broaden his Sun newspaper to a ‘Sunday Sun’ seven day operation to replace the fallen News of the World remains to be seen. But it was his biggest money maker in British newspapers.

Rupert flew into town on July 9 to defend his wannabe takeover of BSkyB which Labour’s Ed Miliband is now telling MPs to halt. While at it, Murdoch told the press Rebekah Brooks had his ‘total’ support.

News International is becoming poisoned by the whole affair as car-maker Renault became the first brand to announce it would no longer be advertising in ANY of News Internationals titles in Britain including The Sun and The Times.

Rupert Murdoch did not arrive in time to see the last News of the World roll off the presses.

Revenge

It turns out no amount of proof-reading the final edition could protect annoyed staff getting their own back on Rebekah Brooks.

The final edition’s crossword included clues like ‘Brook’, ‘disaster’, ‘calamity’ and ‘stink‘ in a veiled dig at the now News International chief executive.

Brooks hired two very loyal proofreaders to give the last paper a going-over but this was not enough.

Newspaper folklore is filled with the stories of disgruntled sub-editors who have had the last laugh by inserting secret messages into the copy before it goes to print.

News Limited (Australia’s branch of the Murdoch News Corporation) CEO John Hartigan released this statement today on the scandal and what it means for Australia. The statement is here in full:

“Phone hacking is the antithesis of everything we stand for. It is a terrible slur on our craft.

As the Times of London editorialised yesterday: `Journalism has a responsibility and an ethic. Its claims to public credibility rests on conducting its work in a way that is defensible to a reasonable person, known in the trade as a reader.’

“I know, and I believe everyone here at News Limited knows that the events in the UK in no way reflect who we are, what we do and what we believe in as a media organisation.

“We have obligations to do the right thing by ourselves, our colleagues, our readers and advertisers, and, more broadly, to the communities we serve in an ethical and moral way.

“The decision to close the News of The World acknowledges that once the contract of trust between the newspaper and its readers had been breached it was damaged beyond repair.

“It is appropriate to remind everyone at News Limited that unethical and immoral behaviour is not tolerated. We have a Code of Professional Conduct in addition to the MEAA code.

“My personal belief is that adherence to these codes is the guiding principle to everything we do.

“I am confident that the practices that have been uncovered in the UK do not exist in Australia, at News or any other respectable media outlet.

“Given the wider reputational impact on all journalists as a result of the events in the UK I want to remind everyone that adherence to our ethical code is fundamental to our right to publish and a fundamental requirement of our work, every day.

“Regrettably, a line has been crossed and its important at times like this that if we care about the power, value and relevance of responsible journalism then we must express in the strongest terms our distress and dismay at such a breach of faith.”

And that’s where it stands at the moment.

Where to from here? How has this scandal affected your opinion of the media and journalists? Has it surprised you?

In case you need an even quicker recap, here’s an animated rundown that (almost) makes sense:

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