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Murdoch Papers' Intrusion May Shock Brown, But It Doesn't Surprise Me

  • Robert Tait

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was "shocked" at the use of criminals to access his personal records, while "The Sun's" disclosure that it knew of his son's medical condition reduced him and his wife, Sarah, to tears, he said.

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was "shocked" at the use of criminals to access his personal records, while "The Sun's" disclosure that it knew of his son's medical condition reduced him and his wife, Sarah, to tears, he said.

So it wasn't just about the "News of the World." Having closed his biggest-selling tabloid after revelations of its industrial-scale hacking turned it from cash cow to commercial liability, Rupert Murdoch now stands apparently helpless as allegations of journalistic malpractice threaten to engulf his other newspapers.

"The Sun" and the "Sunday Times" are accused of having systematically tried to excavate private details of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown over a 10-year period. Particular revulsion is being directed at "The Sun" for revealing that Brown's infant son suffered from cystic fibrosis after obtaining his medical records, possibly by illegal means.

At other times, the "Sunday Times" used underhand means -- and on one occasion, a convicted conman -- to access Brown's personal financial records, activity that the former prime minister has roundly condemned. The use of criminals to access his files left him "shocked," while "The Sun's" disclosure that it knew of his son's medical condition reduced him and his wife, Sarah, to tears, Brown told the BBC.

The former prime minister has every right to be shocked at the brazen intrusion into his personal affairs and private grief. Yet the revelation that Murdoch's papers took a keen interest in him and his family are less of a surprise to me. In fact, it was arguably what once landed me a job on the "Sunday Times," the heavyweight publication in which Murdoch is known to have always taken great pride.

A man takes a copy of the last edition of Britain's "News of the World" in London on July 10.
In January 2002, I did a shift in the paper's Scotland office and was commissioned to write a piece on Brown's political future after the death of his first daughter, Jennifer Jane, aged just 10 days. The story was written and researched on the day of the infant's funeral and published two days later.

There was nothing salacious in the report. It was simply a record of what I gleaned from my own political contacts and speculated on how such a terrible personal tragedy might affect the outlook and career of a man who -- as chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister -- was Britain's second-most-powerful politician after Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The "Sunday Times" was nonetheless delighted. They offered me a job, which I accepted.

The story had pushed all the right buttons.

Tabloid Practices

That became clear in subsequent months when more stories were demanded on Brown. In fairness, these were related to his political machinations and his power struggle with Blair and involved no dubious reporting techniques. But it was aggressive, proactive, and often hostile journalism whose goal was emphatically not to act as his public-relations conduit.

Similar attention was paid to other senior Scottish members of Blair's U.K. cabinet, notably Alastair Darling, whose left-wing past was raked over when he was appointed transport secretary, and John Reid, then Northern Ireland secretary. Indeed Reid, a key Blair ally and later defense secretary, was a subject of particular interest. Sustained efforts were made to establish if unsavory or criminal elements attended his fund-raising dinners, no evidence for which, to my knowledge, was ever found. A friend told me how he had rejected a job on the paper around that time because the brief involved "raking through John Reid's bins."

None of this, it must be stressed, involved me having to hack into phones or use methods that I knew to be illegal. In fact, levels of professionalism were high. Facts were rigorously checked and for contentious stories, balancing quotes were persistently sought.

News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch holds a copy of "The Sun" as he is driven away from his flat in central London on July 11.
Yet the "Sunday Times" was no place for shrinking violets and there were practices there that struck me as, to put it mildly, distinctive. It was possible, for example, to obtain unlisted phone numbers as long as you knew a person's address, something obtained from the electoral roll, which could be accessed online. Getting such information quickly became routine. It occurred to me at the time -- and does so even more strongly now -- that if such resources were available to a branch office, what additional means were being deployed at its Wapping headquarters in London?

I eventually left the "Sunday Times" at the beginning of 2003, not out of distaste for its methods but because I was keen to pursue my ambition to be a foreign correspondent.

Yet the experience had given me an insight into the success formula of Murdoch's newspapers. It was also an object lesson in cutting edge and -- yes, tabloid -- reporting principles.

Endangering Press Freedoms

For a non-British audience, the tabloid dimension cannot be overstressed. The "Sunday Times" is not, in fact, a tabloid. It is renowned as one of the pillars of Britain's respectable broadsheet press. But in British journalistic culture -- in contrast to the press in, say, the United States -- such distinctions are often blurred and this was certainly true of the "Sunday Times."

The reason is that tabloid journalism in Britain has always carried substantial political heft and has produced newspapers that carry politics and sex cheek by jowl -- sometimes in the same stories. It is a formula which, when added to higher sales, has often enabled papers like the "News of the World" and its News International stable mate, "The Sun," to set the political agenda ahead of their broadsheet counterparts.

Their influence -- and their commercial success -- has been the envy of the more serious newspapers, which have felt driven to ape their methods, says John Lloyd, director of the Reuters Program for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. Yet those same methods have created a threat to the very press freedom they need in order to thrive, he says.

"It's turned out to be a danger to the free press because it has caused the closure of one newspaper and it was a danger to the free press while it was working because it meant that the free press wasn't free -- it was criminal," Lloyd says. "It's also dangerous in that it wasn't just the 'News of the World.' Quite clearly, that culture applied to other tabloid newspapers and possibly to the so-called up-market newspapers. It was quite general across the British newspaper culture and that too put a press that should be independent and that should certainly not indulge in criminal activity on the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of their own ethics. So in quite a serious sense, it is a threat to the free press."

The immediate peril is that politicians still angry about being embroiled in a media-driven parliamentary-expenses scandal two years ago could take revenge by imposing statutory legislation that restricts the media's right to intrude on privacy, even when it serves the public interest.

Media analysts say such a move would be counterproductive and would punish legitimate journalism for the misdeeds of papers in the Murdoch group.

End Of The British Tabloid?

Equally important is whether the shock of the hacking episode will have the effect of taming Britain's tabloid culture, seen by many as vital to the health of its democracy. A weakened Murdoch empire now seems inevitable, following the government's decision to refer his News Corporation's bid to take over the whole of BSkyB to the Competition Commission, thus jeopardizing the deal.

Lloyd warns that even without statutory laws, a cowed tabloid press could lose its commercial appeal -- and its political clout.

"The British tabloids had the blackmailing threat of exposure," he argues. "That, I think, will be weaker now because politicians, especially, are now biting back and thus everybody, all the tabloids especially, will draw in their horns, swear that they will be good boys from now on, and possibly have to try to be."

The commercial impact of that, Lloyd adds, could be devastating and may presage the end of the British tabloid as we know it.

"People bought these papers because they were like they were and what this will do to the market if they do clean up their act is another matter. It may be that they cease to be as popular as they were," he says. "Paul Dacre, the editor of 'The Daily Mail,' has argued that if they lose the ability to print sex scandals, they will die -- and he may be right."

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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