Scandals used to be so simple. Power corrupts, we were taught, and scandals were the business of those few who held power. Teapot Dome, which before Watergate was what you thought of when you saw the words “American political scandal,” involved the payment of kickbacks to a single cabinet secretary. The Pacific Scandal was essentially a matter between Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Hugh Allan.
In this democratic age, however, the locus of corruption has shifted. Now, scandals belong to everybody. The corruption more typical of our times—perhaps Watergate marked the transition—infects an organization generally, an “everybody does it” mentality in which large numbers of people who never thought of themselves as criminals become ensnared. Think of the huge numbers of people who participated in or at least knew about the various exchanges that went into the sponsorship scandal. The phrase popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, social epidemic, seems apt. The culture of corruption spreads from person to person, encouraging each to adopt a standard of behaviour that, as individuals, they might otherwise find repulsive.
And so we come to the phone-hacking scandal—the second epidemic of corruption to strike the United Kingdom in recent years, after the parliamentary expenses scandal that led to charges being laid against more than half a dozen MPs and ended the careers of dozens more. It is by now well established that the hacking of personal phone messages by journalists at the News of the World was not, as was maintained for several years, a matter of a rogue reporter and his private investigator accomplice. Nor was it confined to the peccadillos of celebrities or royals.
It extended, as we now know, to literally thousands of people, including the widows of dead soldiers, the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and, most infamously, a missing 13-year-old girl, later found murdered, whose voice messages were not only intercepted but, when her mailbox became full, deleted, thus leading her family to believe she was still alive.
The invasions of privacy went beyond voice mail to include personnel records, bank accounts, and medical files—lawful in certain circumstances, but only where a public interest can be shown, as in cases of corruption. That would not appear to cover, for example, the news that the infant son of Gordon Brown, then the chancellor of the exchequer, had cystic fibrosis, discovered and splashed across the front page within days of the Browns learning it themselves.
This behaviour involved not only reporters at the News of the World, but at least in the Brown example, also the Sun and Sunday Times, sister papers in Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire. (The Sun denies it used Brown’s son’s medical records for its story.) In the fullness of time we shall learn whether it extended to other news organizations, though it is already established that some have hired the same private investigators.
If that were all, it would be shocking enough: the famously slipshod ethics of the British tabloid press spilling over into outright criminality. But it is the intersection with other pillars of British society that takes this story to the outer limits. Much of the confidential material sought by Murdoch’s spooks was supplied to them by police officers, often on the payment of bribes. Other police officers turned a blind eye to the News of the World’s phone-hacking activities, including those explicitly assigned the task of investigating how widespread the practice was, after the first cases came to light—in part, it seems, because their own phones had been hacked, and the evidence of professional and personal misconduct thus obtained. Even after it was revealed that News International had paid huge sums of money to other victims to settle their claims out of court, Scotland Yard somehow concluded there was no story here.
And overseeing all this, the political class of Britain: all of it, it seems, or nearly so. Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, leaders of both major parties have courted Murdoch with lickspittle zeal, in hopes of his papers’ endorsement. The current prime minister, David Cameron, employed one former editor of the News of the World as his communications director, and is close friends with another.
It wasn’t only political or personal connections that moved so many politicians to play nice with Murdoch. It was, as we are now learning, fear. Politicians who crossed him or his minions were openly threatened with the publication of embarrassing personal information. Only now that he is on the run, so to speak, are many daring to speak up. This was not so much a news organization as a bribery and blackmail racket.
The culture of corruption, then, did not just infect the Murdoch empire, but much of the British establishment. To be sure, it had its roots in power, as of old: the kind that comes with owning four national newspapers with a combined 40 per cent of total circulation. The reporters who stole people’s private information could not have done so without the approval of their editors, who in turn would have taken their cues from those higher up. All of them must have come to believe they could get away with anything. Who would dare stand in their way?
But it required also the acquiescence of hundreds of others, outside the News International ranks. Yes, they may have been acting, or failing to act, out of fear, or at least a sense of helplessness. But that is debauching in its own way. Power may corrupt, but so, it seems, does impotence.