If you are a high-profile source, Rupert Murdoch's U.K. tabloids offer you two ways to earn cash. They've never been shy about paying for interviews. Now, thanks to a report in yesterday's Guardian, we know that Murdoch's minions will also pay you to shut your face.
According to the Guardian's story, Murdoch's News Group Newspapers paid about $1.6 million in out-of-court settlements to buy silence from public figures whose phones had been illegally hacked by News of the World reporters and their hired hands. In some cases, Murdoch's minions also illegally accessed these targets' "confidential personal data including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills."
The Guardian piece, by Nick Davies, cites no named sources but points to "Scotland Yard paperwork" to substantiate its claims about the newspaper's law-breaking. In an interview with the Australian ABC, Davies said that private investigators working for News of the World engaged in "blagging"—that is, "conning their way into confidential databases." They also hacked mobile telephone networks to eavesdrop on phone messages.
Following publication of the Guardian story, British officials confirmed that 31 reporters from two Murdoch papers—as well as other reporters at other news outlets—had used illegal means to obtain personal data. Victim names you might recognize: Gwyneth Paltrow, Elle Macpherson, and former U.K. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
That News of the World has engaged in such illegal news-gathering process is well-known. A NOTW reporter in charge of the royal beat, Clive Goodman, went to jail for four months in 2007 for hacking into 600-plus voice messages on the phones of royal family aides.
At the time, Murdoch's executives claimed that Goodman was a rogue operator and repudiated his methods. But when the head of the U.K. footballers union suspected his phone had been hacked, Davies says, he filed suit against News of the World. In the legal proceedings that ensued, the union head reportedly obtained police records from the Goodman case showing multiple instances of the News of the World hacking into his phone and the phones of others. The union leader received about $1.1 million to drop his case and don a gag, the Guardian reports.
"My understanding is that that paperwork shows us that the News of the World were hacking the phones of 2,000 or 3,000 public figures of one kind or another," Davies told the Australian ABC. "And some of these are very soft, Sunday paper targets, like actors and reality television program stars, but some of it ... touched on senior politicians."
A police investigation of charges against the News of the World and the Murdoch-owned Sun has been launched, and the scandal has spilled over into the political sphere: The current spokesman for Conservative Party leader David Cameron is former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson, who resigned after the Goodman affair. Coulson claimed in 2007 that he knew nothing about Goodman's rogue methods. Davies, however, reports that the thousands of phone intrusions took place while Coulson was one of the paper's top editors.
Where does the genocidal tyrant and News of the World owner Rupert Murdoch stand in all of this? Bloomberg News caught up with him at the Allen & Co. media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he claimed ignorance of any payouts for silence.
"If that had happened, I would know about it," Murdoch said, leaving himself little wiggle room.