Tabloid's Eavesdropping Has British Ears Burning

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An investigation by The New York Times has found that the British tabloid News of the World may have hacked into the voicemail of hundreds of British citizens. Simon Hoggart, political columnist for The Guardian newspaper, tells host Scott Simon that this scandal now includes a member of the new British government.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

British tabloids, who feast on scandal, are in danger of indulging themselves to death. Four years ago, Scotland Yard found evidence that a reporter and a private investigator working for the News of the World newspaper - and we use the term loosely - had hacked into the voicemail accounts of members of the royal family, including Prince William. The reporter and investigator ended up in jail. The tabloid's editor resigned.

Now a new investigation by the New York Times has uncovered that the News of the World may have hacked into the voicemail accounts of hundreds of British citizens - royals, pols, footballers, lords, dames, celebrities of all stripes.

Simon Hoggart is a political columnist for the Guardian, which is a lot of things, but no tabloid. He joins us from London.

Simon, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SIMON HOGGART (The Guardian): It's my pleasure.

SIMON: And let's begin with the political question that's hanging. The editor of the News of the World, who resigned, is now a member of the new coalition government.

Mr. HOGGART: Andy Coulson is the chief of communications for the new prime minister, David Cameron, and it's rather as if the editor or the former editor of the National Enquirer had been invited to work for Barack Obama in the White House. Obviously the now Labour opposition is thrilled that a man who seems to have been very, very close to a lot of very illegal activities is now at the heart of government. That's a wonderful weapon for them to use against the Conservatives.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOGGART: But second, there's another one here which crosses the Atlantic. I dont need to tell you that there's a tremendous battle going on between The New York Times and Murdoch's - Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal...

SIMON: Right.

Mr. HOGGART: be the chief newspaper in New York City. And so when my own paper launched this story a few months ago and started saying, look, there were hundreds of illegal intercepts and the editor probably knew about it - indeed, one man who was intercepted was paid a million dollars not to take legal action against this Murdoch paper, the News of the World. Now, that's what started the whole things off.

Clearly, someone at The New York Times thought, a-ha, here's our chance to get back at Murdoch. And so its a wonderful opportunity for The New York Times. So the whole thing is a great churning maelstrom story, and I must say, I'm enjoying it all.

SIMON: I try and resist Watergate analogies, but it does strike me that a lot of people must be finding Mr. Coulson's contention that he didn't know this was going on as incredible as Richard Nixon saying he didn't know about the Watergate cover-up.

Mr. HOGGART: Well, precisely, yes. In fact, he'd got reporters coming in week after week with sensational stories about these famous people, and did he never at any point say, hey, this is sensational, how on Earth did you discover this? He seems to have said, oh, that's extremely interesting, lets put that in the newspaper - without making any further inquiries. And you'd think that not actually saying did you get this legally is in its way as bad as knowing they got it illegally and not doing anything about it.

SIMON: Another question being raised: Scotland Yard is revered all over the world. But there is a question being raised now: Why did Scotland Yard not alert its own government that British citizens were being eavesdropped on?

Mr. HOGGART: Well, a very good point indeed. And I'm afraid Scotland Yard's tradition of unimpeachable integrity maybe have taken a bit of a battering. But they appear to have had rather a close and cozy relationship with the News of the World. The suspicion is that some detectives were getting money for tip-offs that they were able to give to the reporters, and that too, of course, is entirely illegal. And so it looks as if (unintelligible) surface - I wouldnt dream of making an accusation - that they were unwilling to investigate the allegations made against the News of the World when they had pretty clear evidence that phones were being hacked - the names of 2,700-plus people - they appeared to do very little about it. Their argument was that the fact that the names were there didnt mean that they were being hacked into, it was just a possibility that might crop up one day. But even so, it does look a little bit thin and the pressure is growing on Scotland Yard all the time.

SIMON: I follow the parliamentary debate actually mostly by reading your columns and...

Mr. HOGGART: A very wise way of doing it. It takes a great deal less time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, and a couple of others. And I'm interested, the debate seemed to to my mind - stop short of actually savaging Rupert Murdoch.

Mr. HOGGART: Yes. Well, actually, one member of parliament said weve all been terrified of Rupert Murdoch. We're terrified of his newspapers. We're terrified that he'll turn us over. As you know, British members of parliament have had a terrible past 12 months with the expenses scandal.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. HOGGART: The discovery that theyve been charging for the most extraordinary things, including duck houses and moat cleaning. They're feeling very, very tender, very hard done by, but afraid that if they actually stand up against the Murdoch press, then the next thing that will happen is that there'll be some horrible revelation either about their personal life or about their financial life, so to speak.

And one MP, one member of parliament, Tom Watson, Labour (unintelligible) said, look, it's time for us to get off - up off our knees. We must take a stand. And they indeed voted unanimously to send the matter to a pretty tough committee, one which has the powers of summons that can send people to jail if they dont cooperate or if they lie to them.

SIMON: I want to ask about another possible American angle. Piers Morgan is also a former editor of the News of the World, who had to resign. And then he had to resign the editorship of the Daily Mirror after they published famous, turned out to be fraudulent, photographs of British soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq. He's just been hired in a high-profile job here in the United States to replace Larry King.

Mr. HOGGART: Yeah, that's quite a high-profile job, yes, isn't it? On the whole, people are feeling here that - how can I put this - Piers Morgan is not the most well-loved figure in British public life. He's a - actually, he would rejoice in that. He loves angering people...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. HOGGART: ...getting - really riling them and so on. But I think he may have decided that America is a little safer for him for the moment.

SIMON: Simon Hoggart, political columnist for the Guardian.

Simon, always a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. HOGGART: Always a pleasure to talk to you.

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