Tabloid Bites Man

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

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Sheenie had caught the interest of the Sun — and of other newspapers that pestered her for interviews — because she is of Pakistani heritage; they thought this added poignancy to the manner of her husband's death. "They called me a Muslim, and then they've got a photo of me in a Christian chapel getting married," she says. "Darren got murdered. He got killed serving his country. Honor him. Don't get me involved in anything. Honor the man that died. But as I got told subsequently, it's a story, and that's what they wanted. They wanted the story."

The Feral Beast
Unlike the U.S. press, which is protected by the First Amendment, the British media are periodically forced to combat threats to restrict their freedoms by legislation. This may have made its journalists and proprietors more pugnacious, not less so, especially since British jurisprudence is more onerous for publishers too, placing the burden of evidence in libel cases on the defendant rather than the plaintiff. With newspapers under pressure to provide incontrovertible documentary evidence to back up stories, intrusion seems a safer bet than risking defamation suits, and the temptation is to resort to "covert filming and such like," says London media lawyer Mark Stephens. Some attempts by public figures to suppress stories by means of injunctions have backfired, as Internet gossips circulated them with glee. And politicians and officials with secrets to hide may be wary of taking too strong a stand on press regulation or privacy. There have always been rumors about files full of embarrassing revelations that could be dusted off if their subject proved too troublesome.

Blair memorably described the British press as "feral." Its ferocity has increased as economic pressures have restricted its space to roam, and it has increasingly resorted to cannibalism. A covert recording of a meeting held by Brooks with News of the World staff the day after they learned their newspaper would be closed captured her revelation that she "had been not just a victim of Mulcaire" but one of his most frequent targets. For that reason, she says, she was kept out of the loop on the subsequent investigation.

To occupy three of the most senior positions at News International and remain ignorant of the unpleasant realities of its business cannot have been easy. Ian Kirby, the News of the World's last political editor, who joined the paper in 1999, speculates that journalists may have covered up their hacking by getting a source to corroborate information gleaned from voice mails. He says he didn't find out about the hacking until the arrests of Goodman and Mulcaire and rarely knew what stories other departments or colleagues were pursuing — or how they went about it. "It was an extremely secretive place. It was more like working for a police force or an intelligence agency, because everyone operated in silos."

What is clear is that rivalry for scoops had become so fierce that the News of the World was routinely intercepting the voice mails of the editor of its sister paper in search of leads. Kirby believes his mobile was hacked by a newspaper from another media group for the same reason. Britain's print press has long been among the most diverse and competitive in the world, but the rise of digital media has eroded margins and intensified the fight for market share. Coulson "was very tough because he had this mantra: We've got to get the good stories," says Kirby. He speaks of "a culture shift under Andy in terms of the kind of stories we were interested in. It started with the whole Jude Law–Sienna Miller–Sadie Frost story. There was just splash after splash on them."

In May, Miller settled her case against the News of the World after it admitted hacking her phone and paid £100,000 ($161,000) in damages. If the 3,870 people whose details turned up in 11,000 pages of documents seized from Mulcaire seek compensation from the News of the World, Britain's law-enforcement agencies and courts could be tied up for years to come. And there may be many more public figures and private individuals who have been targeted by other methods or by other titles. The same pressures that drove the News of the World continue to drive its competitors.

Less Love, Actually
The same pressures still drive politics too, though watching political leaders unite to attack the people whose favor they so recently sought, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. "In the space of a single week, the government and the opposition have both apparently turned from shameful cowards ... to competitive crusaders in the cause of unmasking and repairing the evils of News International," argues Hugh Grant. "The huge question for this country is whether they can be trusted to have really changed."

It's a fair question. There's no doubt that Murdoch's influence in Westminster has diminished. According to some rumors, he is even considering selling his remaining British newspapers. In most publicly traded companies, corporate misbehavior might compel the board of directors to step in and act independently of management. But the Murdochs run News Corp. like they own the joint. They do, to a point: the family holds only 12% of the common stock but nearly 40% of the voting stock. That's more than enough to consolidate power. There are three Murdochs on the board, as well as other inside directors, like president Chase Carey. The largest outside stockholder, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose Kingdom Holding claims 7% of News Corp., has backed the Murdochs. But whatever happens next to Murdoch's empire, the underlying conditions that permitted his red-tops to occupy such a pivotal role remain. Even the shocking revelations of the past week, the anger of the public — and the horror — may not be enough to stop the political classes from jumping into bed with the tabloids to win the affection of the voters. It's the only way they know.

— With reporting by Bill Saporito / New York

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