Phone hacking saga taints British media, police and politicians

Xinhua, July 22, 2011

The phone-hacking scandal looked set to continue to dominate Britain's news agenda, despite Prime Minister David Cameron delaying the parliament's summer holiday to answer questions from elected lawmakers.

The scandal has ignited a firestorm of criticism over the past three weeks, with a series of serious revelations about journalistic standards, alleged police corruption and cozy relationships between politicians and News International (NI), the company at the centre of the allegations.

It has so far also seen the resignation of Britain's top policeman Paul Stephenson for employing a former NI executive as a part-time media consultant. In addition, one of his most senior lieutenants has also resigned for failing to properly investigate phone-hacking allegations. Police handling of the scandal has also has been severely criticized.

Public faith in police independence and integrity has been damaged and there could be worse revelations to follow.

Police and journalists are also awaiting with some trepidation further allegations that senior police officers in the Metropolitan Police, London's police force and the premier force in Britain, took substantial payments from journalists for exclusive information. One claim made is that the private mobile phone numbers of senior members of the royal family may have been bought by a newspaper owned by NI.

Outrage at media

An angry public holds the British press in low regard and they face regulatory change, perhaps at the hands of politicians.

It is the media in general, and newspaper journalists in particular, who have suffered the most serious damage to their reputation, and it was the fact that journalists at the NI newspaper the News of the World had authorized the hacking of the phone of a murdered schoolgirl that began the storm of criticism which has fuelled the current frenzied pitch of the scandal.

The News of the World, a 168-year-old newspaper that made a healthy profit and accounted for 40 percent of the Sunday newspaper market, was closed by its owner NI, under the orders of Rupert Murdoch, the owner of NI's parent company News Corporation (NC).

Murdoch's closure gambit seemed to be a failed bid in damage control as the News of the World was a very small part of his massive international media operations. The print industry, in any case, is known to be in decline.

Murdoch had aimed to preserve his bid for full control of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), which was about to be allowed by regulators. He is already the largest shareholder at BSkyB, with a 39.1 percent stake, and full control would have netted him tens of millions of pounds each year.

The deal fell through in the face of massive public outrage and in the unusual agreement of all three major political parties, who united to condemn the sale in the House of Commons.

Murdoch withdrew the deal, and it remains to be seen if he will be able to resuscitate it when the scandal has abated and the political atmosphere is more amenable in the months or years to come.

What is certain is that the regulation of the printed press in Britain, whose ethics are self-regulated, is set to change. The Press Complaints Commission, which currently overseas enforcement of the regulation, is widely seen to have been ineffective and Cameron has announced an inquiry. Regulation through law looks a distinct possibility in the future.

Several journalists have been arrested as part of the investigation into phone-hacking, and others are likely to be in the future. Court cases are likely to follow, along with prison sentences. The most high-ranking arrest so far is of Andy Coulson, the former deputy editor and editor of the News of the World who quit his job in 2007 when one of his journalists and a private investigator were jailed for hacking the phone of Prince William, third in line to the throne.

Coulson was employed three years later by David Cameron as his media chief when he became prime minister. It is this link with NI, and what it says about his decision making, which is causing Cameron a great deal of political trouble. Coulson resigned from his job under Cameron earlier this year, and was arrested and questioned by police just over a week ago.

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