Let’s review the recent ethical conduct of Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, News of the World.
In 2007, News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and a private investigator who worked with him, Glenn Mulcaire, went to jail for hacking the phone mail of aides to the royal family. In 2009, the newspaper paid about $1.6 million to settle legal action by two public figures who alleged that their phones were hacked by News of the World reporters. The settlement shook additional plaintiffs from the tree, and now, according to an investigative piece in the Sept. 5 New York Times Magazine, five people have filed lawsuits against Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, which publishes News of the World, claiming that the newspaper looted their phone mail, too. Earlier this year, a London PR executive who was also targeted dropped his lawsuit after he met with a Murdoch executive and Murdoch’s company agreed to pay the PR man about $1.6 million for feeding it exclusive stories in the next several years, the Times reports.
In addition to the five phone-hacking suits against Murdoch Inc., more may come. A former member of the police force brass—and others—want a judicial inquiry into Scotland Yard’s handling of the hacking case because their names appeared in the documents belonging to the disgraced private eye, reports the Times. The police officer who ran the case, Andy Hayman, now retired from the force, has defended the original investigation. He is now a columnist at the Murdoch-owed Times of London. (For more about Murdoch paper crime sprees, see my back pages.)
The News of the World’s response to the New York Times Magazine? News of the World Managing Editor Bill Akass claims in an accusatory letter to the Times that “your investigation has always been tainted by a vested interest in its outcome which means it is in serious and multiple breach of your own ethical guidelines.” (Akass’ letter, edited and redacted by the Times, can be read on the TimesWeb site.)
Akass compares the former News of the World employees that talked to the Times to Jayson Blair, the former Times plagiarist and fabulist *, and asks how they can be any more credible about his newspaper than Blair could be about the Times. He quotes from the Times’ ethical guidelines, which vow that the newspaper and its reporters will be “free of any hint of bias,” and calls on the Times to conduct an internal investigation of its story.
Gesturing at the fact that the Times competes in the United States against Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, Akass writes:
What clearer conflict of interest is there than devoting such enormous resources over five months to investigating one of a rival group’s newspapers and then seeking to publish unsubstantiated claims about that newspaper?
Yes, Murdoch’s News of the World, which has paid out millions in phone-hacking settlements, whose reporter went to jail for his role in the scandal, which faces a stream of angry plaintiffs, and which wants to wage newspaper war on the New York Times but thinks the Times should be enjoined from investigating Murdoch’s newspapers, wants to dictate ethical standards to the Times.
This is a little like walking in on a guy shtupping your wife and having him lecture you on the evils of adultery. Akass has no case.
For more on the “newspaper war,” see this preview of Sarah Ellison’s comprehensive feature in the October Vanity Fair, “ Two Men and a Newsstand.” I seek your ethical direction. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t hack my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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*Correction, Sept. 5, 2010:The original version of this story mistakenly stated that Jayson Blair was “sacked.” He resigned. (Return to the corrected sentence.)