Milly Dowler hacking was tip of the iceberg | Media | The Guardian
The Guardian’s story about the hacking of Milly’s phone was published on the afternoon of Monday 4 July. The decision to close was announced on the afternoon of Thursday 7 July. It stunned everybody at the time. Nobody had been calling for the newspaper to close, although allegations of phone hacking were mounting.
Incredulous staff were told by former editor and the then News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks: “Worse revelations are yet to come and you will understand in a year why we closed the News of the World.” Company insiders briefed that the title had become “toxic”.
According to the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, James Murdoch said to his father: “Pops, we’ve got to close it down. If we act now, we do it ourselves.” Rupert asked some questions, paused, and uttered one word: “Yes.”
The Dowler story had an enormous impact, taking the hacking scandal beyond celebrities and politicians. But it was not the only story about alleged NoW illegal activity to emerge in the three days before the Murdochs swung the axe. The Daily Telegraph followed with two influential scoops that added to the mix. On 6 July, it splashed on “Hackers ‘snooped on Soham families’,” and also reported that Scotland Yard was contacting the families of victims of the 7/7 bombings amid concerns that they had been targeted.
A day later, the Telegraph splashed with “Families of war dead ‘hacked,'” this time reporting that bereaved relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been targeted and the London Evening Standard wrote that Metropolitan police officers had allegedly received £100,000 in unlawful payments from NoW journalists.
There was a wider context. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation was, at the time, close to winning approval for its highly controversial bid for BSkyB. George Brock, a former managing editor of the Times who is now a professor of journalism at City University, said: “What the Dowler story made clear was that phone hacking wasn’t just aimed at celebrities and that the attempts to conceal its scope were going to fail. I’d guess that in that context, News Corp felt that only a very dramatic gesture could possibly save the bid for full control of Sky, which was the company’s biggest issue at that stage.”
That leads him to conclude the paper would have shut anyway, with or without the detail about deletions, although in the end the BSkyB bid also failed shortly after.
A more significant question is what made the NoW so vulnerable. In some respects, News International had been waiting for a Milly Dowler-like story to drop for months. Towards the very end of 2010, the Murdoch newspaper publisher quietly changed strategy, conceding finally that the old “rogue reporter” defence it had been using since Clive Goodman was jailed in 2007 was dead. It fell apart when a second journalist, Ian Edmondson, the news editor, was suspended after it had been alleged in court that he had ordered Mulcaire to hack into phones belonging to Sienna Miller. He was later dismissed, and has since been arrested on hacking charges.
The recognition at the Murdoch publisher prompted a wave of internal thinking. Senior insiders talked about “scenario planning” – and one such scenario was that a victim of crime would emerge as a target of phone hacking.
News International’s tabloids, had, in part, been built on the elevation of the victim: Brooks and other executives well appreciated that a Dowler-like story would be a game changer.