I promised myself not to write anything about the News of the World "phone hacking" scandal until Rebekah Brooks, the CEO of News International, resigned. I did that because, ultimately, any piece before she did would amount to " Rebekah Brooks will have to go".
And now she has. And she's been arrested to boot.
I've been following the phone hacking story for months, at least; I kind of remember being interested back when Sienna Miller first filed suit in 2007, claiming her phones had been hacked, messages deleted, and details related to the messages showed up in the News of the World. But since then, watching this story unfold, it's fascinating and truly compelling to see how one minor incident has snowballed into the calamity that may take down Rupert Murdoch's empire, his livelihood, and possibly his career.
But if you're lloking for me to join in vocal outrage over the phone hacking details... well, you should know I don't do outrage a lot. Also that I tend not to take the familiar, obvious line; in this case, I'm not especially sympathetic to cries that "reasonable expectations of privacy" are really the story of the phone hacking scandal. Indeed, the unfolding of the phone stories has reinforced a faith I have that the belief in a "right to privacy" is actually kind of a vague all purpose shield that tends to wilt under close scrutiny.
No, what's really unfolding out of the revelations of phone hacking is something much more fundamental, especially for the British, whose culture, after all, is actually quite different from Americans. What's fundamentally unraveling in England, and may drift over to American shores, is a fundamental reassessment of just what constitutes news and what we deserve to know. In some ways, yes, that's the flip side of "privacy", but it's really the more relevant, more controllable question. Just how freely should the press rummage about in people's lives, and what amounts to going too far?
That's the real question that "phone hacking" has generated. And it's why, really, the phone hacking scandal probably begins and ends with Milly Dowler.
There's been a lot of mention of Amanda "Milly" Dowler the past couple of weeks; revelations that reporters from News of the World hacked Dowler's voicemail became the final straw in revelations of the hacking scandals. Dowler was a 13 year old girl who went missing in Surrey on her way home from school. Six months after her disappearance her nude, decomposing body was found. Some time after that, a child molester and serial killer was identified as her killer. He is now in prison.
It's worth remembering that the phone hacking scandals have nothing to do with Dowler's death or disappearance. The frantic voicemails and textss her parents left for Dowler, beginning on the afternoon of her disappearance were never heard because Dowler was probably killed shortly after she was abducted, andher phone discarded. The reporters at News of the World simply used the information in the messages and texts for stories about the family's anguish... and left room for the family to leave more messages, so they could write more stories.
What we're talking about, then, is emotional manipulation of a grieving family to prolong a front page story. But make no mistake: Dowler's disappearance and the coverage it attracted would have happened regardless. There were sensational stories around every development in the Dowler case; at one point her father was suspected, and others were as well until the man convicted of her murder was identified (it's unclear from online stories just what links the killer so conclusively to Dowler's murder). The Dowler family, clearly, has been subjected to a kind of intrusiveness in their lives over a number of years, by the press.
What's instructive here is that press and public outrage reached a boiling point not about Sienna Miller, or Hugh Grant, or Prince William or Prime Minister Gordon Brown or the Queen herself; but over intercepted phone messages in a nearly 10 year old murder case where the phoe messages had nothing to do with the crime.
And that, really, says a lot about what is likely to change as a result of this scandal and what isn't.
Rupert Murdoch met this past week with Dowler's family, offering numerous apologies; he published an apologetic letter in every British newspaper this past Saturday. But Murdoch has never apologized to Sienna Miller or Hugh Grant or dozens of other celebrities and quasi celebrities whose lives were far more directly abused in pursuit of often pointless tales of celebrity gossip. Murdoch, in fact, is famously remembered for turning a cold shoulder to Princess Diana's pleas to him, in person, that he call off his tabloids from relentless pursuit of her and her children. Conservatives have complained, often, about President Obama doing an "apology tour" for the US and how this is unseemly. Why, then, is an apology tour somehow appropriate for Murdoch? And, what, really, is he sorry for?
In many ways, we are at this moment with Murdoch, specifically, because he is one of the last of the old-style press barons. His personal control of a media empire is an anomaly in a business dominated by more and more corporate interests. His newspapers have generally resisted the rise of web based approaches to news - The New York Post, Britain's Sun, and even News of the World were known to have lousy websites, hard to navigate and hardly go-to sources. Fox News is better known for its TV component than anything about its web presence, which is generally weak.The paper of his with the best web presence - the Wall Street Journal - put that in place long before Murdoch bought the paper. His organization has struggled to integrate into their operation, or their approach to the web (at one point, they threatened to end the WSJ's subscription only access, despite the fact that WSJ is about the only paper to have a proven, successful pay content strategy).
In that envireonment - where Murdoch's media outlets tend to live or die on their ability to grab attention with arresting headlines - is it any wonder that reporters and editors in his organization use tactics that, on reflection, can seem outrageous and out of bounds? Yet, in a basic, unsexy way, this rummaging around in people's lives - rifling their mail, eavesdropping on their phone calls, combing their trash - is what journalists do. This is not new. It's why reporters have terrible reputations. It's why news gathering is, ultimately, a little sleazy and disreputable.
And without people willing to rummage around, and break rules, you don't find out about Watergate. Or The Pentagon Papers. Or WikiLeaks.
It's also worth remembering that there's a difference between the US and England; we do not have the same kind of newspaper environment that London has (even in New York), we do not have the narrow, class based distinctions that still put Britain's wealthy and powerful into a small social circle of interconnected relationships - even if one likes the "Versailles" analogy a great deal. That Murdoch's people benefitted from cozy relationships with leaders in the political establishment and Scotland Yard is undeniable, and this scandal, ultimately, is about class issues in England that have existed far longer than problems we have in the US. Unpacking those issues, and seeing where the police scandals lead in particular, will be a long, messy slog.
In the long run, i'm not sure what this phone scandal really amounts to - it may demolish Murdoch's hold over England's media climate, it may even loosen his grip on media here... but does news gathering realy change as a result? My guess is... probably not. It may be criminal to hire private detectives to help you hack into people's cell phone voicemails... but there's plenty of nosy, intrusive stuff that reporters do that they won't stop doing. Because without people being nosy... we don't get the story.
None of this is to try and excuse what the News of the World did; I think Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton and even Murdoch homself (or at least his son) should be called to account for a practice of intrusive behaviors in the pursuit of news. One of the hallmarks of this scandal has been Murdoch's failure to respond to the unraveling of the scandal in a modern, transparent way. All the faux apologies and lack of clear details - who knew what when, and who paid for what information, just for starters - hurt Murdoch more than what we've found out about who was hacked and why. Nothing, really, will change if readers and viewers want news that consists of affairs between footballers and strippers, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, or Wills and Kate. Until we can extend the sympathy we have for Milly Dowler to Sienna Miller, the problem isn't the press. It's us. And the things we think we want to know.