News Of The World faces a dark nightmare (Wired UK)by Peter Kirw, wired.co.uk
July 5th 2011
Had enough yet? Have you reached your own personal tipping point?
It's a relevant question because what has always concerned News International most of all about the phone hacking scandal is the possibility of a broad public backlash, like that which greeted The Sun's story about the conduct of Liverpool fans during the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
This way lies commercial damage. On Merseyside to this day, many Liverpool fans persist with their 22-year old boycott of The Sun.
Yesterday's Guardian story suggesting that the News Of The World accessed voicemails left on a handset owned by the murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler has the potential to ignite a similar reaction.
Last night and again this morning, under the hashtag #notw on Twitter, pre-formatted Tweets were being sent to companies that advertise in the News Of The World, asking them to withdraw their campaigns. According to one tweet, journalists at the News Of The World started receiving abusive calls from members of the public yesterday afternoon.
One heavily-retweeted message, in particular, summed up News International's crisis: "campaigning for Sarah's Law, while hacking into missing child's phone & giving family false hope. #notw" If executives at News International were holding their heads in their hands around the board room table yesterday afternoon, as the BBC's Nick Robinson suggests, it's hardly surprising.
Milly Dowler was not a royal, a celebrity or a politician. Nor were her parents, who interpreted investigator Glenn Mulcaire's alleged deletion of Milly's voicemails as evidence that their daughter might still be alive during the huge police manhunt for her.
The Dowler allegations suggest that Mark Lewis, the solicitor representing the Dowlers, is right to suspect that phone hacking was used against ordinary people who happened to get caught up in national news stories.
The rollcall of victims could be substantial. Thousands of major crime stories were reported in the nationals between the late 1990s and 2006, when the curtain finally came down on phone-hacking as an investigative technique with the jailing of News Of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman. Charlotte Harris, a solicitor who has acted for several high-profile hacking plaintiffs, believes that the number of victims could be as high as 7,000.
The commercial damage caused by a boycott would be compounded by a public inquiry. On the web last night, a new URL, hackinginquiry.org, made its debut. Supporters include the Media Standards Trust, which acquired the URL on 15 June. They are promising a wave of public events and much high-level support.
One nightmare scenario surely preoccupies executives at News International -- that of Rupert Murdoch arriving at a judicial inquiry, much as Tony Blair arrived at the Chilcott Inquiry, and being barracked by the friends, relatives and supporters of crime victims whose phones may have been hacked.
Any inquiry will drag other tabloids into the limelight. Almost certainly, Rupert Murdoch wasn't the only worried press baron working the phones last night. Readers of the Mail Online, for example, reacted negatively to yesterday's Dowler story, suggesting that the News Of The World should be "shut down".
These readers of Mail Online may find it instructive to read the evidence generated by Operation Motorman, a 2006 investigation undertaken by the Information Commissioner into the misuse of personal data by private investigator Stephen Whittamore, who worked for much of Fleet Street.
Motorman identified 58 journalists at the Daily Mail and 33 at the Mail On Sunday -- plus 45 at the Mirror and 50 at the Sunday People -- who had worked with Whittamore. A public inquiry would begin by disinterring this evidence and examining it further. The experience may prove rather uncomfortable for Lord Rothermere, the 44-year-old chairman of Daily Mail & General Trust.
To avoid a public inquiry, News International needs a new strategy. The existing plan, put into place earlier this year, involved rapidly settling all outstanding civil cases (like the one brought by the actor Sienna Miller) without any release of damaging documentation.
The plan also relied upon the prospect of guilty pleas from four or five suspects identified by the Met's third, ongoing, investigation. On this basis, none of the files relating to their cases would be released, either. All of this, News International plausibly hoped, could be achieved by November.
The Dowler story transforms these calculations. Now the outlines of a new strategy are emerging. This morning, reporters were being told that Brooks had spoken with Murdoch and retains his backing. Indeed, offloading Brooks immediately would make calls for a public inquiry much harder to ignore. Wapping may have been emboldened by the overnight response of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, both of whom seemed to shy away from calling for a public inquiry. (This morning, however, Miliband called for a "proper", "wider" inquiry.)
Yet News International knows it cannot afford to relax. Last night, in New York, its parent company News Corp appointed two of its board directors, Joel Klein and Viet Dinh, to investigate the phone-hacking scandal. Both men are former assistant US attorney generals.
Thus News Corp hopes to forestall cries for a public inquiry -- and protect itself from shareholders. As for Brooks, her fate no longer rests in her own hands. In the medium-term, Dinh and Klein may yet become the hitmen who dispatch her on Murdoch's behalf.
The phone-hacking scandal won't go away. Almost certainly, the Milly Dowler story is the beginning, rather than the end, of a trend. At the root of it lies a simple question: how much latitude should we, the people, offer to tabloid publishers whose print-addled business models are destined for the dustbin of history? Will we regulate their efforts to maintain our interest in dead trees? Or will we say enough is enough?
The Twittersphere has had its say. By 11pm last night, four out of 10 of the top UK trends on Twitter were News Of The World-related. This morning, the number is down to one. Much depends on whether momentum stalls, or grows.
Wapping's enemies also need to remember that Twitter is not coterminous with the great British public. If this story does go mainstream, it will do so without very much assistance from the tabloids.
In this respect, we're about to witness a real test of social media's power as a mass medium.
Original Page: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-07/05/milly-dowler
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