Tabloid Bites Man

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Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Rupert Murdoch, chief executive officer of News Corp., is driven from his apartment in London on July 13, 2011

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It's unlikely to be the last such invitation, with two police investigations under way and a sweeping judicial inquiry launched by Cameron to examine the specific allegations relating to the News of the World and wider issues regarding relations between the media, politicians and police. Les Hinton, Brooks' predecessor as chief executive of News International and now head of Dow Jones, may also be pulled into the inquiries.

In the past, News International has shown itself more inclined to bury evidence than expose it. And until last week, many politicians and authorities seemed more intent on building relationships with Murdoch's empire than policing its reach. Last year Cameron installed as his director of communications Andy Coulson, who edited the News of the World during a period of the tabloid's worst excesses. It was seen at the time as Cameron's attempt to keep the tabs in his tent. But Coulson had to resign from the government in January, as the phone-hacking inquiries started to boil; on July 8, he was arrested. And however fast Cameron has moved to prevent more political damage, events seemed determined to overtake him.

The affair has left Britain wrestling with a crisis of faith so profound that it may prove to be the nation's Watergate — but with the media as the bad guy. Four out of five Britons no longer trust the press. The scandal has also undermined their confidence in the police. Nor is the public inclined to listen to politicians, who were already compromised by a 2009 investigation into abuses of the parliamentary-expenses system that has seen four MPs and two peers jailed. And now they have another scandal on their hands that's worthy of the tabloids.

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It's easy enough to understand the appeal of the News of the World for the 7.5 million readers it claimed at its death. The widest-circulating Sunday paper in Britain, it was entertaining, with punning headlines, amusing snatched images and irreverent accounts of Very (Self) Important People, garnished with topless "lovelies." That doesn't explain why the British establishment has been in thrall not to a moneyed elite or, as in France, to its intellectuals, but to titles that U.S. readers might expect to find displayed by the checkout counter. Britain is still class-ridden, and communications between the classes, and between London elites and the rest of the country, are imperfect at best. Britain's tabloids — not just the red-tops but also the middlebrow Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday — are conduits and connectors in this fractured society. They are not at the edge of public and political discourse; they are central to it.

Imagine President Bush clearing his calendar to attend the wedding of the National Enquirer's chief executive or President Obama stopping by the editor's country house for an intimate dinner during the Christmas holidays. The year Rebekah Brooks was appointed CEO of News International, Gordon Brown (then Prime Minister) and Cameron (his challenger) attended her wedding. Last December, Cameron and his wife Samantha dined privately at Brooks' Oxfordshire home, reportedly with Coulson and James Murdoch. Less than a month before the scandal broke, Cameron and Miliband turned out for a key fixture on Britain's social schedule, the News International summer party, "simpering" at their hosts, according to Hugh Grant in an e-mail to TIME.

The actor, who describes invasions of his privacy by the British press as "too numerous to mention," has emerged as a fierce campaigner against press intrusion; earlier this year he succeeded in coaxing Paul McMullan, a former journalist for the News of the World, into discussing the range of illicit techniques deployed to obtain scoops. Grant covertly recorded the conversation and wrote about it in New Statesman magazine. "Twenty percent of [Scotland Yard] has taken backhanders [bribes] from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms?" McMullan told Grant. "And what's wrong with that anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career — but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?"

The News of the World was known for its swagger. Its most famous staffer, Mazher Mahmood, used to impersonate a sheik to coax indiscretions from targets, including an inebriated and cash-strapped Sarah Ferguson, slurring in her eagerness to sell access to her former husband Prince Andrew.

Admittedly, the red-tops have been instrumental in uncovering scandals as well as creating them, not least in revealing the true state of Charles and Diana's marriage when the docile broadsheets continued to report that all was rosy in the House of Windsor. (McMullan told Grant that at least some of that insight may have come from a precursor to hacking. "In the early days of mobiles, we all had analog mobiles, and that was an absolute joy," he said. "You just sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 [$95] scanner you bought at [discount electronics store] Argos and get Prince Charles.") If the current investigations of the News of the World lead to trials, lawyers in some cases may be tempted to argue that the tabloid had acted in the public interest. In reality, British tabloid culture rarely distinguishes between the public interest and what might interest the public.

The same might be said of the popular press the world over. The difference in Britain is that even the red-tops — especially the red-tops — command attention at the highest levels of the Establishment. If the Sun or its main competitor the Mirror alleges impropriety by a politician, the party spin machines will kick into action as the rest of the media scramble to follow up the story. In other countries, a tabloid medium more usually undercuts the message. When the National Enquirer uncovered an extramarital affair conducted by Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards as his wife battled cancer, most mainstream outlets, including this one, ignored the scoop. Although the Enquirer claims a circulation of about 1 million, nobody inside the Beltway thought to take it seriously.

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