British Newspaper Mired in Phone Hacking Scandal

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Britain's tabloid press is known to go to great lengths to get the lowdown on celebrities and politicians. Tabloid readers across the pond are used to that; but now there's outrage in Britain over how one newspaper reportedly hacked into a murdered girl's mobile phone messages while she was missing. The News of the World has also been accused of hacking into the phones of some of the relatives of the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London. British Prime Minister, David Cameron, today backed calls for an independent inquiry into the scandal.

David Cameron: Let us be clear, we are no longer talking here about politicians and celebrities; we're talking about murder victims, potentially terrorist victims having their phones hacked into. It is absolutely disgusting what has taken place, and I think everyone in this house and indeed this country will be indeed revolted by what they've heard and what they've seen on their television screens.

Werman: Graham Foulkes' son, David, was killed in the 2005 terror attacks. He says he's been told by police that his phone may have been hacked soon after the bombings.

Graham Foulkes: There was a week when we had no communication from the authorities about whether David was alive, in intense care, or had been declared dead. And we were chatting to friends on the phone in very personal and deeply emotional contact. And the thought that somebody may have been listening to that just looking for a cheap headline is just horrendous.

Werman: The phone hacking scandal has sparked a political and media storm in Britain. The BBC's Rob Watson has been following the story. He's in London. Rob, the paper, News of the World, which is in the crosshairs here, it's part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire. What kind of publication is it?

Rob Watson: It's pretty racy stuff in News of the World -- lots of tidbits about celebrities, people who've been doing naughty things, footballers who've been sleeping with people that aren't their wives. I think that probably gives you pretty much of a flavor of what the News of the World is like.

Werman: I mean this isn't a new thing in the UK. One should recall the days when the cellphone of Prince Charles hacked, so why is the British government now suddenly giving this very serious privacy issue their full attention?

Watson: You've really hit on it. This isn't new, it's certainly not new that Britain's tabloids are raunchy, racy, and that they use pushy methods in their reporting techniques. You're absolutely right. In fact, the hacking isn't even new. It was known that certain celebrities, Hollywood stars have had their phone hacked. But what has happened and why we've suddenly got this crescendo, almost a crisis is because there's a feeling that a red line has been crossed; that it's one thing to hack into the phone messages of some celebrity to find out who they're in love with or not in love with, but just quite another thing to hack into the phone messages either of murder victims or relatives of those victims. It's as if that line has been crossed.

Werman: What could happen to the News of the World if the allegations are proved to be true?

Watson: Let's take first things first. There is a continuing police investigation and there's certainly the possibility that will prosecuted, that they'll go to court and perhaps people will go to prison. Now, there's something else going on and that's there's going to be a much wider public inquire into media ethics in this country. Now, will that lead to the defanging of Britain's infamous tabloid press? Well, I'm not so sure about that. People have declared the demise of the tabloid and all that taming in the past, and so far they've always emerged. But there's no doubt this is a very uncomfortable period for the tabloid press and for the News of the World in particular. And then of course, there's a political dimension to this story because it just so happens that David Cameron was rather friendly with some of the executives at the News International, and indeed, he even had a former editor of the News of the World until recently as his director of communications. So, the political opposition in this country is saying ah-ha, look at him, see what kind of judgement he's got? Look who he employed as his director of communications.

Werman: Right, so short term implications for News of the World, the readership up or down?

Watson: Well, they've got some immediate problems on their hands which are some rather big name advertisers saying mm, we're not sure we want to continue carrying on advertising in your newspaper while all of these allegations are out there, and there have been some campaigns calling for a boycott. But I suspect that the outcome is going to be something like this -- that there likely will be resignations, possibly even prosecutions involving News of the World and the broader international News Corporation group. I suspect that reputations are gonna be severely damaged. I think it's going to be very uncomfortable for David Cameron for a while. As to the long term future of the tabloid press, don't write it off.

Werman: The BBC's Rob Watson in London, thank you so much, Rob.

Watson: Thank you.