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End of the (News of the) world

In Britain's media, allegations of sleaze and corruption run deep.

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The spectacular implosion of one of Britain’s most successful newspapers has revealed an aspect of the country’s business culture even nastier and more sordid than the celebrity train-wreck stories it thrives on.

Rupert Murdoch’s The News of the World, Britain’s most popular Sunday paper, will be shuttered as of July 10 after stunning revelations of criminal behaviour and corruption sent advertisers running for cover and the left the organization’s reputation in tatters.

NoW’s infamous newsgathering methods—including hacking into the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and royal insiders—are not new. But while the targets of such brazen (and illegal) tactics consisted of members of the British elite, there was scant sympathy from gossip-hungry readers who lapped up details of which singer was in rehab or which politician had cheated on his wife. Indeed, regular readers referred to the paper as “News of the Screws.”

However, the success of such tactics amid the hyper-competitive market of British tabloids inexorably led to the expansion of these intrusive methods into the realm of non-celebrity Britain. In one case, is was alleged that the cell phone of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler was hacked into by a private investigator at the behest of NoW. In an effort to free up memory space in her voice mailbox, the PI deleted certain messages, leading the police (and, one would assume, her parents) to believe that she may still be alive. Milly was subsequently found dead.

Further appalling stories have come to light. Relatives of victims of the 2005 London Tube attacks may have also had their phones hacked, along with relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The police—who sat on evidence of these inflammatory allegations for years—are implicated in a series of e-mails from News International (NoW’s parent company) that document payments from the newspaper to corrupt police officers.

The revelations come at a bad time for British Prime Minister David Cameron, a long-time associate of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Cameron’s government is currently considering a bid by Murdoch’s News Corp. for the acquisition of broadcaster British Sky Broadcast in a deal estimated at £12 billion (C$18.3 billion). The move—which would more than make up for any lost revenues from the closure of NoW—would be a coup for Murdoch. But for Cameron, it would be seen by voters as a pass for the man who oversaw an organization that employed methods which were not only cynical and immoral, but also illegal.

And it gets worse for Mr. Cameron. His communications chief, Andy Coulson, was an editor with the paper until 2007 when two NoW employees were convicted for hacking the phones of members of the royal household. He resigned from Cameron’s team in January of this year as rumours of the scandal gained traction, and is alleged to have ties to the e-mails outlining illegal payments to police officers.

The affair is likely to have profound implications for Britain’s media and political landscape. NoW’s rival tabloids are eerily silent on the issue—an admission, according to pundits, that they employ the same shady methods. More importantly, Murdoch has until this week been considered a political king-maker, whose favour is essential for any serious contender’s run at 10 Downing St.

Moreover, some politicians seem to live in fear of the media. According to The Economist an MP recently alleged that members were warned they could be targeted by newspapers if they insisted on summoning NoW’s then editor-in-chief Rebekah Brooks to give evidence against her will.

Labour MP Chris Bryant admitted as much during an emergency debate in the House of Commons on July 6. “We rely on [the media], we seek their favour, we live, we die politically because of what they write and what they show and sometimes that means we are not courageous or spineful enough to stand up when wrong has occurred,” he said.

Inquiries have been called into actions by both NoW and the Metropolitan police, and News Corp.’s bid for British Sky Broadcast is up in the air (although it is expected to go through). Perhaps the government’s fear of the media will be supplanted by fear of disgusted voters. Only time will tell.