When Sara Payne's 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, was kidnapped and murdered by a pedophile in 2000, the devastated mother found a powerful friend and ally in the shape of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World and its then editor Rebekah Brooks. The paper threw its considerable weight and influence behind Payne's ultimately successful campaign for new child-protection laws. The News of the World's final edition on July 10 featured an article by Payne praising the tabloid as a "force for good." But now she may be regretting her tribute. On Thursday it emerged that Payne may well have been amongst those whose voicemails were accessed by a private detective working for the very same newspaper that stood by her in her grief.
In a scandal that has already seen the now defunct tabloid accused of plumbing the depths of unethical journalistic behavior, this latest revelation left politicians and campaigners struggling for words. Opposition Labour MP Tom Watson, who has led the campaign to expose the full extent of the hacking affair, simply declared it was the "ultimate betrayal."
Former News of the World editor Brooks and Payne became close as they fought together for the launch of Sarah's Law, which, similar to Megan's Law in the U.S., allows parents to check if someone with access to their children has a record of child-sex offences. When news that the families of other murder victims had had their voicemails hacked started to emerge earlier this month, police told Payne that she was not amongst the names found in private detective Mulcaire's files. But the Guardian newspaper revealed on Thursday that police had uncovered fresh evidence suggesting that a phone Brooks gave to Payne so they could keep in touch over the Sarah's Law campaign may in fact have been targeted.
Payne's charity, Phoenix Chief Advocates, issued a statement on Thursday night saying she was "absolutely devastated" by the news, while Brooks made her own statement declaring the allegations "abhorrent," particularly as they related to her "dear friend." "The idea that anyone on the newspaper knew that Sara or the campaign team were targeted by Mr. Mulcaire is unthinkable." she said. "The idea of her being targeted is beyond my comprehension."
Brooks was editor of the News of the World between 2000 and 2003 and has always denied knowing anything about hacking. She went on to become one of Murdoch's closest aides and chief executive of his U.K. operation News International. She resigned that post on July 15 and two days later was arrested and questioned by police investigating the scandal.
What remains unclear about this latest twist is whether Payne's cellphone was ever actually hacked, and it was reported in the British media on Thursday that sources close to Brooks had revealed that the voicemail system on the phone provided to Payne had not been activated until 18 months ago.
This all comes as members of the parliamentary committee which took evidence from Rupert and James Murdoch last week are considering re-calling James Murdoch, after some of his evidence regarding an email that allegedly reveals details of widespread phone hacking at the News of the World was contradicted by former executives of the paper. There was, however, a bit of good news for James Murdoch on Thursday when the directors of broadcaster BSkyB, which is 39% controlled by the Murdoch family, said it will continue to back him as chairman.
There had been signs that the so-called Hackgate affair might be calming, as British politicians and the public start to switch focus back onto what many see as the more pressing problems of the economy and deep public-spending cuts. And many have been asking: What more could go wrong? The landslide of hacking revelations over the past month has already prompted the resignations of two senior Murdoch executives and two of Scotland Yards most senior officers, cost Rupert Murdoch his hopes of taking full control of broadcaster BSkyB and even battered Prime Minister David Cameron over his employment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.
Now the revelation that one of the paper's most trusted and trusting friends may have been a victim of its underhanded tactics is just another example of how this unprecedented crisis still has plenty of power to surprise and appall and only the most optimistic might claim the worst is now over.