Any one of these would have been the makings of a potboiler, but together they were the story that had been heating up for years and finally exploded in the News of the World scandal. The final spark: The paper’s reporters had illegally hacked into voicemails in order to obtain juicy scoops. On July 4, the Guardian revealed that royals and celebrities weren’t the only targets; reporters had also hacked into the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a teenager who had been kidnapped and murdered. Six days later, News of the World printed its final edition, ending a 168-year history.
Despite the actions of owner and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and his deputies, the end of the paper was not the end of the story. Nearly six months later, the scandal has spawned an inquiry that might change reporting in Britain.
Just the beginning
For many Americans who hadn’t heard of the paper’s rampant misdeeds, the shutdown was just the beginning. This scandal had roots, and snapping off one branch didn’t do much to quiet critics. Especially for spectators sitting Stateside, the sudden cascade of resignations on both sides of the pond signaled a juicy story indeed. Within days, resignation letters and arrest warrants came in quick succession from Murdoch’s umbrella company, News Corp., and, shockingly, Scotland Yard.
More than a dozen reporters, detectives, and executives were arrested, including the favored Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Coulson had been hired by British prime minister David Cameron after Coulson resigned as editor of News of the World because of — you guessed it — hacking allegations back in 2007. Three days after the final News of the World issue, Murdoch dropped his bid for the television company British Sky Broadcasting.
In the middle of all this, Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter who exposed the tabloid’s shady dealings, was found dead at his London home. Police called his death nonsuspicious, but it nonetheless added to the unfolding drama. An inquest later found that he died of natural causes.
“Most humble day of my life”
On July 19, Murdoch, son James, and Brooks, out on bail, appeared before Parliament, a rare occurrence. The elder Murdoch called it “the most humble day of my life” — and that was before comedian-activist Jonnie Marbles aimed a shaving-cream pie at his face. But the 80-year-old was in good hands: His wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch, leaped into action and tossed the pie right back at the assailant.
The trouble for Murdoch continued through the summer, and it’s not over yet: The scandal is still being investigated in the Leveson Inquiry. The muck has seeped through the highest levels of government and through Scotland Yard, with allegations that police were in cahoots with News of the World, either for money or because they were afraid that reporters might publish details about their lives.
In September, when he learned he’d be called back to face Parliament, James Murdoch quit two U.K. newspaper boards, leaving no Murdoch family member on the boards of News Corp.’s papers there. That same month, in an interview with the Guardian, the very paper that had blown the story wide open, Wendi Deng Murdoch said of the scandal that “a few people made a mistake.” That concept is reflected in Rupert’s and James’s statements that they didn’t know as much as one might think.
The official verdict likely won’t come until September 2012, but it seems the practices were widespread — and not just at News of the World or even only within News Corp. And the paper’s demise has also brought a limit to Murdoch’s empire.
A former reporter for the Associated Press and ABC News, Laura E. Davis writes about gay rights and the Supreme Court. She is one of the social media editors for Yahoo! News. Follow her on Twitter at @laura_ynews.