The U.K. phone-hacking scandal is unspooling like a film noir.
You’ve got allegations of cops on the take—not to mobsters but to unscrupulous journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, News of the World. The journalists, skilled at sensationalizing crime stories and expert at digging dirt on celebrities and politicians, weren’t rogue actors. According to reports, the paper was paying cops at the direction of its top editor, Andy Coulson. Police corruption doesn’t appear to be limited to payoffs, either. Cops are alleged to have helped News of the World suppress the investigation into phone-hacking—the illegal monitoring of voicemail boxes—by News of the World journalists and the sleazy detectives who do their dirty work.
Pour in News of the World’s heartless exploitation of the family of a murdered 13-year-old girl; stir in the scaredy-pants from the other newspapers—excluding the Guardian—who are said to worry about their own methods and practices; dice up the leaders of the national political parties, who have been lax until now about Murdoch’s outrages; and top with Coulson, whom Prime Minister David Cameron hired as his director of communications in 2007, six months after he resigned the editorship of News of the World, and you’ve got all the elements of a classic noir.
Update, July 7, 1:25 p.m.: The plot thickens. Murdoch has shut downNews of the World.
If only we could persuade the 80-year-old Murdoch to wheeze about like The Big Sleep’s Gen. Sternwood, get chief executive of Murdoch’s News International Rebekah Brooks to vamp it up like Vivian Rutledge, order the Guardian’s Nick Davies to do a hero turn as Philip Marlowe, and find a stronger sex angle, then the only preproduction tasks remaining would be to wet London’s asphalt and secure sufficient black-and-white film stock. Hell, Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox could produce and distribute it! Call it The Big Phone Hacker.
Although noir comes in many shapes and sometimes even in color, it’s always powered by the darkness of the soul. Lying and cheating are the salt and pepper of noir—it’s a place where love is reserved for suckers and the innocent are fair prey for the strong like Murdoch.
Today, Murdoch issued a statement of support for Brooks, who was editor of News of the World in 2002 when it hacked the voicemail of missing teen Milly Dowler. (The Guardianexposé of the Dowler voicemails is what has set off the current hullabaloo.) He called the phone-hacking and payments to police by News of the World “deplorable and unacceptable” and declared that his company would fully cooperate with police investigations, adding, “and that is exactly what News International has been doing and will continue to do under Rebekah Brooks’ leadership.”
“We are committed to addressing these issues fully and have taken a number of important steps to prevent them from happening again,” Murdoch claimed. What exactly Murdoch meant by this would require an fMRI of his brain during a water-boarding session. Murdoch and his company have known about the phone-hacking since Aug. 8, 2006, when News of the World “royal” editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were arrested for hacking the phones of “royal” household staff and ultimately went to jail for their offenses. (See this useful Telegraphtimeline of the complete scandal.) That’s five years ago! Had Murdoch wanted to address “these issues fully,” that was the time to act, not now. (For further deconstruction of Murdoch’s statement, see Roy Greenslade’s post.)
In his statement today, Murdoch also announced that two wise men—attorney Joel Klein, who recently went to work for Murdoch, and legal scholar Viet Dinh, member of the News Corp. board of directors—would assist him in righting the situation. Klein and Dinh have no News Corp. power outside of what Murdoch authorizes them to do. The genocidal tyrant’s usual strategy when trapped by a scandal of his own making is to put on a glum, penitent face, make extravagant promises, wait for the noise to recede, and continue apace.
The old strategy won’t serve this time. Somebody more important than a “royal” editor and a rented detective will have to pay. The Independent’s Andy McSmith thinks it’s unlikely that Rebekah Brooks will be the one. He writes that Murdoch holds her in such high regard that she’s become a fifth daughter to him and that closeness will protect her. “Other products of the Murdoch stable have their day and are then discarded,” McSmith writes. “She and Murdoch talk every day. She is not required to answer to anybody whose name is not Murdoch. When the old man enters a crowded room, Brooks is immediately at his side as his introducer and protector.”
Pardon me for mixing my favorite noir films, but if Murdoch were Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon, he’d deal Brooks to the cops so fast she’d think her name was Brigid O’Shaughnessy. But if Murdoch intends to guard Brooks, whom will he recruit to take the fall? Today’s Guardianspeculates that Coulson, who was Brooks’ deputy at the time of the Dowler phone-hacking, will be the one, because Brooks has allegedly secured an alibi. The newspaper reports—without sourcing the information or even claiming an anonymous source—that Murdoch’s company “has established” that Brooks was on vacation in Italy when Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked.
The problem with pinning the scandal on Coulson is that if made the scapegoat, he’ll likely spill his guts and cut a deal with prosecutors as John Dean did amid Watergate. If Murdoch were a real film noir villain, he’d quickly pin the scandal on Coulson and have him killed but make it look like a suicide. But Murdoch is no noir villain. If he were, the waters of the Potomac would have been chummed with my body long ago.
To escape this scandal, Murdoch, Brooks, flunkies Klein and Dinh, and the company chain of command (hey, where is Les Hinton in all of this?) will have to navigate the current criminal investigation, a proposed government inquiry, and the Press Complaints Commission’s ire at having been had by Murdoch and Co. when it investigated the phone-hacking scandal in 2009. Meanwhile, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband hit Murdoch where it really hurts today by asking Prime Minister Cameron to stall Murdoch’s takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB in view of the current scandal.
Like any good noir, bodies will pile up like cordwood during the final reel of The Big Phone Hacker, and at screening’s end we’ll rise from our seats drunk on despair. As I type this, the phone-hacking scandal is widening. The Telegraphreports its findings that News of the World phone-hackers may have targeted the families of dead servicemen. And Nick Davies has struck again with a Guardianstory alleging that under Brooks, a News of the World journalist used “photographers and vans leased to the paper to run surveillance on behalf” of two murder suspects. So far, the phone-hacking scandal and its tributaries have been as dizzying and convoluted as anything in The Big Sleep. It will all make sense, I trust, if Davies and the Guardian publish a sufficient number of sequels.
Addendum, July 6, 9:06 p.m.: The Guardian catalogs the phone-hacking denials from News Corp. executives and others over the years.
Thanks to Noah McCormack, who alerted me to the Andy McSmith piece. I say Nicole Kidman should play Rebekah Brooks in the film version of this story, and Ian McKellen should play Murdoch. Who is squirrely enough to play Andy Coulson? Jon Hamm as David Cameron? Send casting notes to firstname.lastname@example.org and watch my Twitter feed for program notes. (Email 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.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For email notification of errors in this specific column, type noir in the subject head of an email message, and send it to email@example.com.