How Private Information Became “News of the World”

Dan Whalen is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

As the volume of litigants and evidence stacks up against News of the World amid the ongoing British phone-hacking scandal, onlookers have increasingly begun to wonder how it had gotten so far without any serious repercussions. New investigations not only give concerning accounts of privacy breaches by many newspapers, but also cast suspicion on the relationship of the British press with the region’s police and politicians.

Heather Mills, English model and former Mrs. Paul McCartney, is reportedly considering a lawsuit against News Group, the subsidiary of News International that publishes the News of the World, for allegedly hacking her mobile phone. She now numbers among a litany of public figures who have either undertaken or are considering legal action against the media conglomerate; others include actress Sienna Miller, soccer star Wayne Rooney, a Labour Party MP and an aide to a former deputy prime minister. To date, 24 such figures have filed suits against News Group while lawyers of other alleged victims claim that “many more” will soon follow. Indeed, some sources estimate that as many as 7,000 people have had their phone calls or messages intercepted by agents of News of the World.

News Group has only recently admitted to any wrongdoing, following years of refusing to cooperate with parliamentary inquiries and paying more than US$2 million in settlements to keep matters quiet. On April 8, 2011, News International broke from this tradition and issued a public statement making “an unreserved apology and admission of liability” towards eight litigants facing the company. Interviewed for a stirring Vanity Fair piece, one executive close to the scandal explained the company’s worry of “death by a thousand cuts” as more damaging disclosures emerge day after day.

The most intriguing element of this story is undoubtedly the fact that only recently, in April, 2011, has News Group begun issuing such apologies. News of the scandal first broke five years ago, in 2006, when a single News Group reporter and the private investigator he had hired were found guilty of illegally listening to voicemail messages of the royal household and were sentenced to short prison terms. News Group was eager to blame this “rogue reporter,” but that cover story soon collapsed under the weight of multiple lawsuits and a serious police investigation.

What makes this gap so shocking is the revelation that, during its initial investigation in 2006, Scotland Yard seized a “massive amount of evidence” that included electronic and hand-written records containing nearly 3,000 mobile phone numbers, 91 voicemail access codes, and 30 tapes that appeared to contain recordings of voicemail messages. Despite this trove, Scotland Yard notified only five people and seemed to just sit on the rest until earlier this year. A preliminary judicial review of Scotland Yard’s handling of the case began in early May, 2011, during which the agency has already admitted to some “operational shortcomings.”

Many journalists and lawyers close to the case reportedly suspect that police officials have been reluctant to probe the matter so as to avoid the merciless wrath of the tabloids that they would be investigating. It might be more than mere coincidence, for instance, that two police officers in charge of the investigation at separate times have been targeted by the tabloids for alleged indiscretions. More generally, the mutual reliance between the police and the press is a historical truth; newspapers want good stories and the police want good coverage.

British newspapers have seemed to be equally hesitant to report on the phone-hacking scandal. Reportedly frustrated by this lack of coverage, an editor of The Guardian suggested to a counterpart with The New York Times that his paper investigate the story from overseas. The resulting article uncovered allegations that the former editor of News of the World had expressly encouraged phone-hacking.

Indeed, as the Vanity Fair article reports, some speculate that phone-hacking has become so common among British newspapers that they hesitate to draw attention to it. A recent investigation undertaken by the Information Commissioner’s Office, the British agency tasked with enforcing data privacy, bolster such claims. In examining another known phone-hacker’s activities, the agency has discovered that he has rendered his services to no less than five British newspapers, including The Daily Mail, The Observer, and the News of the World.

The legal outcome of this scandal is yet unknown, but for now it serves as a cautionary tale encouraging practitioners to investigate the underlying societal intricacies and motivations that may complicate proceedings and make murky what might otherwise seem clear.

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