The British phone hacking scandal is reminiscent of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Resignations, non-denial denials, arrests, inquiries by legislators, and firings are dominating the news in both Europe and America. Indeed, just like Watergate, the questions are, what did they (News Corp.) know? And when did they know it?
A parade of News Corp. officials have been before British parliamentarians in recent days, each armed with some of the best p.r. lines money can buy. But like Watergate, no one is taking responsibility. Was it a secret rogue operation that lasted years and involved bribery, payoffs, and character assassination? If so, the trouble should blow over. Yet, it has not blown over and probably will not.
Here in the U.S., the FBI is investigating the possible hacking of e-mail accounts and phones belonging to 9/11 victims. If evidence is uncovered that confirms any intrusion, this scandal may yet surpass Watergate. This is becoming more than a case of media concentration or a lack of regulation. At stake is the quality and the exercise of democracy and for these reasons, this latest scandal will be with us for some time. This is where it starts to look even more like Watergate.
To many, Watergate began with a bungled break-in at Democratic Party headquarters. The scandal that emerged had more to do with the coverup than with the break-in. It was the coverup that led to the discovery of an illegal assault on the American constitution. It involved illegal activities under White House instigation and approval. Bugging, enemies lists, collection of hush money, payoffs, and the illegal use of the intelligence and police communities were at the heart of the scandal. Nixon was facing inevitable impeachment and possible prison had he not resigned.
It is too early to predict that the current scandal will end in such drama. What we know is the close proximity between News Corp and the politically powerful in Britain. We know that two top leaders of Scotland Yard had to resign, ten people have been arrested so far, and some 4,000 victims may have been subjected to illegal hacking. Prime Minister David Cameron is facing his first full-blown crisis. And still no one has taken responsibility.
In Watergate, both the media and eventually the political system rose to the challenge. The hope in this latest scandal is that the same two ingredients so vital to our democracies will once again make sure we know who was responsible and who will pay the consequences.
[John Parisella is currently serving as Quebec’s Delegate General in New York City.]