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The 12 Nastiest Villains in the Murdoch Phone-Hacking Scandal

Here's an incomplete guide to the villains in the drama that threatens to take down the Murdoch empire.
 
 
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Sometimes the bad guys really do lose. For News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch, a very bad guy who, until recently, enjoyed a long winning streak, the losing days have begun to be counted in weeks. Since the latest incarnation of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal erupted a bit more than a week ago (with the revelation that now-defunct British tabloid News of the World tampered with the voice mail of teenage murder victim Milly Fowler), each day has brought devastating revelations that implicate a handful of top executives at News Corp. and News International, the division that comprises the company’s British newspapers. (News Corp. is a U.S.-based company that also owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, as well as the Fox movie and entertainment companies.)

Today Murdoch, his son, James (who is News Corp.’s deputy chief operations officer), and Rebekah Brooks, who, until Friday, headed News International, will appear before the British Parliament to provide their testimony about accusations of widespread phone-hacking and police-bribing by News of the World and possibly other News International papers. 

Over the weekend, Rebekah Brooks, a Rupert Murdoch protege and CEO of News International, stepped down, and was arrested as part of a police investigation of the illegal hacking of voice mail accounts belonging to as many as 4,000 different people, as well an inquiry into the alleged bribing of police officers during the time she served as editor of the tabloid, News of the World. Murdoch had mounted a fierce defense of Brooks, so her resignation comes as a bit of a surprise. Brooks maintains her innocence.

The bribery allegations this weekend also ended the career of the commissioner of the storied London Metropolitan Police Authority, also known as Scotland Yard. Sir Paul Stephenson stepped down as Scotland Yard’s top cop following reports that the department had failed to investigate allegations of widespread phone-hacking and police bribery by News of the World, as well as revelations that the police force had retained the services of a former News of the World editor, Neil Wallis, as a public relations consultant. Wallis also consulted at the time for a spa that provided the police chief with around $18,000 worth of free services.

The News of the World scandal involves a complex pattern of alleged wrongdoing by a long cast of characters, including some in British government, as well as other newspapers owned by News Corp. (For background, see AlterNet’s previous reporting, here and here.) Enterprising reporting by the Guardian, a British newspaper, and the New York Times continues to place the scandal ever closer to the government of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party.

In related developments breaking at press time, a whistleblower who implicated News of the World editors in the phone-hacking scheme was found dead at his home -- authorities described his death as “unexplained but not thought to be suspicious.” Also, a bag and computer that belonged to either Rebekah Brooks or her husband were found in a garbage bin in the parking garage of a mall near the Brooks’ home.

Here we offer an incomplete list of some of the villains in the drama that threatens to take down the Murdoch empire, and has weakened the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron.

1. Clive Goodman. The former News of the World reporter who covered the British royal family was the first News Corp. employee implicated in the scandal when it was revealed in 2006 that he had hired a private investigator to hack into the voice-mail accounts of aides to the royals. Goodman was arrested for the hacking, and subsequently fired by News of the World, whose editors claimed they were shocked, shocked to learn of his nefarious activities. When Goodman initiated a wrongful termination suit on the grounds that he was acting on the authority of his editors, News International paid him an undisclosed settlement, essentially buying his silence. He was sentenced to several months in jail. Goodman was arrested again on July 8 as part of the current police investigation into alleged illegal payments made to police officers for the purpose of gleaning personal information on people targeted by News of the World.

2. Glenn Mulcaire. The private investigator Goodman hired to hack the voice-mail of an aide to Prince William. He, too, was sentenced in 2006 to several months in jail. Mulcaire broke his silence earlier this month to apologize to those he had harmed with his hacking.

3. Unnamed info-leaking and possibly bribe-taking bobbies. At this point, no names have been dropped of cops on the take from Murdoch’s minions. But if a cop who provides, say, information on your location via his or her access to a GPS system that tracks your cell phone, as reportedly took place on behalf of News International reporters, we can’t imagine a more weasely kind of villain.

4. Neil Wallis. Former News of the World editor who was hired as a public relations consultant by Scotland Yard; friend of top cop Paul Stephenson. Was also the PR consultant to Champney’s, an exclusive spa that provided Stephenson with around $18,000 worth of free services. In 2009, Wallis advised Scotland Yard’s third-in-command, John Yates, not to pursue an earlier investigation into News of the World phone-hacking beyond the initial targets of Goodman and Mulcaire. (Yates obliged.) Wallis reported back to his former colleagues at News of the World on the state of the investigation of their activities. He was arrested on July 14 as part of the current News of the World investigation.

5. Paul Stephenson. Until this week, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Authority, or Scotland Yard (since 2009). Resigned his position on Sunday, July 17, following questions surrounding Scotland Yard’s engagement of former News of the World editor Neil Wallis as a public relations consultant, and whether Stephenson’s hiring of Wallis resulted in Stephenson receiving free services from Champney’s spa. In his resignation statement, Stephenson took a parting shot at Prime Minister David Cameron, who has come under fire for hiring another former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, as his communications director. (Coulson resigned that position in January.) At least Wallis, Stephenson said, was never implicated in the phone-hacking scandal, as Coulson was.

6. John Yates. Until this week, served as assistant deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Authority; resigned on Monday, July 18. Responsible for limiting the initial police investigation of News of the World's phone hacking to the work of one reporter, even though many others at the publication were believed to have taken part in similar activities.

7. Rebekah Brooks. Former chairman, News International; former editor News of the World, as well as the Sun, another News International tabloid. Resigned her News International position on Friday, July 15. Was the top editor at the News of the World when the paper hacked the voice-mail account of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, a London schoolgirl who went missing in 2002. At the direction of News of the World employees, a private investigator not only hacked Dowler’s cell-phone voice-mail, but erased voice-mail messages when the mailbox was full, apparently in the hope of receiving more messages that would provide details for the paper’s story on her disappearance. The tampering gave the family and police false hope that the girl was still alive. She was later found murdered. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown alleges that while Brooks edited the Sun, the paper used nefarious means to glean confidential information about the health of his seriously ill children. Brooks was arrested on Sunday, July 17, but not charged with a specific crime, as is permissible under British law. She is scheduled to appear before Parliament today.

8. Les Hinton. Former CEO of the Dow Jones Company and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal; former executive chairman of News International until Murdoch moved him to New York in 2007 to run the Dow Jones operation (which publishes the Wall Street Journal.) Resigned from News Corp. on Friday, July 15, after a 52-year career with the company. Testified on the phone-hacking scandal twice before a committee of Parliament; told lawmakers the scandal involved the work of a single rogue reporter, Clive Goodman. The Guardian revealed last week that Hinton, while at the helm of News International, had access to the memos resulting from a 2007 investigation revealing that phone-hacking activities were widespread among News of the World staff. Hinton, however, told the culture committee of the House of Commons that his thorough internal investigation implicated only Goodman, the royals reporter.

9. Andy Coulson. Former editor, News of the World (until 2009); former communications director of Conservative Party (until January 2011). Presided over News of the World at the height of its phone-hacking into the voice-mail accounts of numerous celebrities, including actors Sienna Miller and Jude Law, as well as possibly the accounts of victims of the 2007 terrorist bombings of the London subway by al Qaeda. In 2009, Coulson stepped down from his position at News of the World, when the scandal re-erupted, but was hired by the Conservative Party during David Cameron’s successful bid to unseat then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party. When the scandal flared up again at the end of 2010, Coulson resigned his post in the Conservative Party. Up until that point, Coulson maintained he had no knowledge of phone-hacking, but the New York Times interviewed a former News of the World reporter, Sean Hoare, who said he had shared recordings of hacked messages with his friend Coulson. (Hoare was found dead in his home yesterday; according to the Guardian, authorities describe his death as “unexplained but not thought to be suspicious.”) Coulson was arrested on July 8 in the current investigation of News of the World phone-hacking and bribery. 

10. David Cameron. Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, leader of the Conservative Party. Against the advice of Nick Clegg, his deputy prime minister, Cameron hired Andy Coulson as his spokesperson after the election, even though the phone-hacking scandal continued to dog Coulson. Even after Coulson resigned as Cameron’s communications director in the wake of further revelations implicating him in the phone-hacking operations, Cameron continued to meet with him. Cameron also enjoys a cozy relationship with Rebekah Brooks, entertaining her and other News Corp. editors frequently. In a Guardian story about the cozy relationships between Murdoch and the British elite, John Harris describes how Murdoch enlisted Cameron to undermine the BBC, the publicly funded broadcaster:

[I]n the summer of 2008, David Cameron was transported in a private plane...to the Greek island of Santorini, from where he was ferried to Rupert Murdoch's 184ft yacht the Rosehearty, for an important meeting. The following year, the Tories began to harden a new antipathy to the BBC, floating the freezing of the licence fee and urging the corporation to do "more with less": messages that were in accord with the chippy anti-BBC lecture James Murdoch gave at that year's Edinburgh TV festival. Just over a month later came achingly predictable news: that the Sun was swinging its support behind the Conservatives, and dumping [the] Labour [Party].

11. James Murdoch. Son of News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch, and deputy COO of the company. Authorized high-figure cash settlements to several high-profile victims of phone-hacking by News of the World in exchange for their silence. The largest reported payment was to Gordon Taylor, head of the International Footballers Association, to the tune of £700,000 (more than $1 million U.S.). James Murdoch who was called in to manage the scandal. He made News Corp.’s official statement when company executives decided to permanently shut down News of the Worldafter the Milly Dowler revelations and subsequent reporting by the Guardian.

12. Rupert Murdoch. Chairman and CEO, News Corporation. Runs his publicly traded company like a personal dynasty, and uses News Corp. media properties to advance an anti-labor, deregulatory political agenda designed not for the benefit of readers or shareholders, but for the consolidation of his own personal power, and that of his family. So feared in Britain that no politician would challenge wrongdoing by any of his media properties until the Dowler incident turned the British people against him. In the United States, he has used News Corp. media outlets for direct political organizing against a sitting president of the United States, allowing Fox News personalities to organize rallies, and allowing an editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal to collect speaking fees for appearances at political events convened by David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which serves as an organizing body for the Tea Party movement.

The New York Times reported yesterday that when the News of the World phone-hacking scandal exploded earlier this month, Murdoch considered flying to London (from a conference in Idaho) on a commercial jet, so he could “appear to be a man of the people.” He reconsidered and took his private Gulfstream instead.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan