One of Rupert Murdoch's U.K. tabloids goes on a crime spree.

Media criticism.
July 9 2009 4:59 PM

Murdoch's News of the World Steps in It

The press mogul's U.K. tabloid goes on a crime spree.

Rupert Murdoch speaks at the Washington Convention Center. Click image to expand.
Rupert Murdoch speaks at the Washington Convention Center 

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."

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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.

Either Murdoch 1) didn't know that News Corp. paid $1.6 million in hush money and is asleep at the wheel, 2) knows but is lying, 3) or, like Don Corleone, "knows" just enough to be in charge but not to bear legal responsibility for his company's actions.

There is nothing unprecedented about the News of the World'sscandalous methodology, only its scale. The newspaper's Web site boasts that the paper "offers the biggest payment for stories." Its reporter Mazher Mahmood has disguised himself as a sheik to sting celebrities and notables and once presented himself as being in the market to buy a sports team in order to snag an interview with the coach of England's soccer team. The coach dissed his own players and got sacked. In 2002, News of the World reporters, including Mahmood, claimed in a story to have stopped the kidnapping of Victoria Beckham. The prosecution dropped the kidnapping case when the court learned that a prosecution witness—who had a criminal record—had been paid £10,000 by NOTW. In another Mahmood sting, he and police conned three men into attempting to buy "red mercury" for use in an attack. The defendants were acquitted in 2006.

In today's Guardian,a former editor of Murdoch's Sunday Times, Andrew Neil, surmises that the $1.6 million payout will look like pocket change after the other targets of illegal snooping file suit against Murdoch. "News International could face a class action by people who want to mount a class action to unseal those documents," he said. "There could be the most almighty class action, you're talking about multimillion pound losses." Murdoch's U.K. competitors are pissing themselves with speculation over which News Corp. big shots (Les Hinton?) the dragnet will snare.

There are a lot of good things to say about Rupert Murdoch, but this isn't the time or the place. Just when you think he's changed his sleazy ways—he hasn't been the awful owner of the Wall Street Journal I predicted—he and his organization go and soil themselves again.

The genuine Rupert has returned to the arena and is badder than ever.

******

Murdoch doesn't want to talk about the scandal. Here he is on Fox Business, the question from Stuart Varney. (Hat tip to Mediaite.) I'm a Murdoch worshipper compared with the unnamed author of this 2004 Center for American Progress fact-sheet about the Dirty Digger. Send words of love for Murdoch to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and listen for Murdoch updates on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word blagging in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.