'Hackgate' - the story so far

Privacy and digital regulation issues continue to exercise the UK government - and the public. 'Hackgate' has raised questions about how news organisations source their stories. We take a look at the story so far.

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Just a few weeks ago, as he hosted the News International summer party in London, Rupert Murdoch must have felt that his takeover of the highly profitable and cash rich broadcaster BSkyB was as good as in the bag, and that the News of the World phone hacking difficulties were under control.

Yet he was soon to face the potential meltdown of the powerful, global media empire he has built over the past 50 years. How did it come to this?

Phone hacking

While those who had claimed to be victims of phone hacking were politicians and celebrities, the UK public mainly viewed them as 'fair game'. 

But Milly Dowler was something quite different - a 13 year old schoolgirl, brutally murdered in 2002.   Adding to the public disgust was that not only should this young murder victim have her phone hacked, but those responsible had also deleted messages when her voicemail became full, giving anxious relatives false hope that Milly remained alive.

The story calls into question the inner workings of the English media, the relationship between the largest police force in the UK (The Metropolitan Police) and the News of the World, and the links between British politicians and the media.

The story so far

In 2005 the News of the World published a somewhat innocuous story about Prince William suffering from a knee injury. The newspaper would not have been aware that the injury was known to a very limited number of people, and it quickly became apparent that the story could only have been obtained by the illegal interception of voicemail messages.  A subsequent complaint to the Metropolitan Police led ultimately to News of the World Royal reporter Clive Goodman, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, being charged with the unlawful interception of communications.  Both were jailed in January 2007.

As a consequence of the convictions, the then editor of the paper, Andy Coulson, resigned, despite denying any wrongdoing on his part.   A few months later in May 2007 he was appointed the Conservative Party's Director of Communications, and he continued working in a similar role in Downing Street when the Conservatives were elected to government in May 2010. As allegations about Coulson's knowledge of the hacking continued, he resigned from Downing Street in January 2011.

Following the conviction of Mulcaire and Goodman the extent of the hacking was presented as being carried out by a few 'rogue reporters'.  However, in the summer of 2009, the Guardian newspaper claimed that the number of those whose phones had been hacked actually ran into the thousands.  As a consequence of this story, the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates reviewed the evidence and concluded there were no grounds for re-opening the original investigation.  

However it would later emerge that the true extent was in fact much greater. The officer who had led the original 2005 investigation, Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, on leaving the Metropolitan Police was hired as a columnist by the Times, another News International owned paper.

Early warning signs

In 2006 the then UK Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, had revealed that 305 journalists had illegally obtained personal information by various means not connected specifically to phone hacking.  In the wake of current events, Thomas's successor, Chris Graham, has been actively critical of the Government's and Parliament's failure to act on Thomas's Report.  Furthermore in 2003, before knowledge of the hacking had even emerged, then editor of the News of the World Rebekah Brooks, had told the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport that her newspaper had paid police officers for information.  When it was pointed out to her this was illegal, Andy Coulson, her then deputy editor was quick to state that the payments were made within the law.  Amazingly no one at the time chose to ask deeper questions about such payments.

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