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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In Westminster, nobody thinks not to take the popular press seriously. Mass-market newspapers set agendas and presume to make or break Prime Ministers. On election day in 1992, Murdoch's Sun famously ran an image of Labour leader Neil Kinnock's face superimposed on a lightbulb under the banner headline "If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights." The Conservatives won. Three years later, another Labour leader flew to Australia to address News Corp.'s annual conference and seek Murdoch's blessing. Backed by all of News International's titles, Tony Blair won in a landslide in 1997.

Defense Against the Dark Arts
Murdoch's magic has never been as powerful as these vignettes suggest. Even before the digital revolution eroded his circulations, politicians' success or failure rested on numerous factors, not least a strong message and a measure of dumb luck. But the Westminster elites also rely on the mass-market titles to keep them in touch with the ordinary voters they represent and only dimly understand. "Of course Tony Blair had a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch," former Labour Cabinet Minister Jack Straw told the BBC. "It is through the press that the electorate perceive politicians." He might have added that it's through the press that politicians perceive the electorate.

In Coulson, a product of a humble background, the upper-class Cameron found a man who combined an understanding of the people with an understanding of the tabloids. And so, newly installed in Downing Street, Cameron ignored the circumstances of Coulson's departure from the News of the World. The gravity of that misjudgment was revealed when Coulson was arrested by officers investigating voice-mail interceptions and illegal payments to police. Coulson has denied any wrongdoing. "I decided to give him a second chance," Cameron said. "But the second chance didn't work out." How many second chances voters give Cameron in the future will depend on his ability to lead in the unfolding crisis rather than just be buffeted by it.

The Prime Minister's gamble might have paid off if tabloid culture were as benign as its consumers assume it to be: just a relatively innocuous pairing of stars and paparazzi. Indeed, Brits are inclined to consider people in the public eye fair game for entrapment and muckraking. One veteran of tabloid intrusion compares Scotland Yard's failure to vigorously investigate the News of the World to its initial low-key pursuit of infamous British serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, because, some people commented, his first victims were "only" prostitutes.

Likewise, the first reports that the scandal at the News of the World stretched wider than the royal household raised little interest outside circles the tabloid would have dismissed as "the chattering classes." In 2009, the Guardian revealed that News International had paid out more than £1 million ($1.6 million) in secret out-of-court settlements with victims of the hacking spree; the following year, the New York Times alleged that Coulson, who has denied all knowledge of hacking, had actively encouraged the practice during his editorship of the News of the World. Coulson resigned from Downing Street, and the world — and the News of the World — turned much as before.

It was the Guardian's July 4 revelation that in 2002 Mulcaire may have hacked into messages left for abducted 13-year-old Milly Dowler — and deleted some of them when the mailbox reached capacity, unintentionally giving her parents false hope she was alive — that finally changed the game. The News of the World was launched in 1843, proclaiming its intention to serve not only "the middle as well as the rich" but "the poorer classes" too. Here was the people's champion exploiting ordinary people at their lowest ebb.

The revelations have emboldened some victims of press malpractice to speak out. Still, several public figures contacted by TIME wish to remain anonymous for fear of attracting reprisals or compromising future legal actions. They provided the following examples of snooping, not just by the News of the World but also by a number of other publications: a journalist claiming to be a visiting nurse talked his way into a private house to steal genetic material from a baby to establish its paternity; a nurse received a call from someone impersonating her patient, asking to be reminded of the patient's treatment plan; a reporter called the house of an actor's elderly parents, pretending to be the actor's drug dealer, in an attempt to startle them into talking; when police were called to an emergency at a celebrity's home, paparazzi arrived before the cops.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown recalled how he and his wife cried when they got the call from their friend Rebekah Brooks. At the time, Brown was Chancellor and Brooks was editor of the Sun. She asked for a comment on a story she was about to run that would reveal that their 4-month-old baby had cystic fibrosis. They had wanted to keep his condition private. Brown accused News International of using "known criminals" to gather information for this and other stories on him: "If I, with all the protection and all the defenses and all the security that a Chancellor of the Exchequer or a Prime Minister [has], am so vulnerable to unscrupulous tactics, to unlawful tactics, methods that have been used in the way we have found, what about the ordinary citizen?" The Sun claims to have found out about the baby's illness through a legitimate source.

Stories, whether obtained by fair means or foul, are routinely embellished. In 2009, Warrant Officer Class I Darren Chant was shot dead in Helmand province along with four other British troops by a member of the Afghan National Police. Chant's pregnant widow Nausheen, known as Sheenie, was horrified to see her wedding photographs appear in the Sun with quotes attributed to her, reinforcing the false impression that she had collaborated with the tabloid.

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