- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
For fans of sensationalistic headlines, shady reporting tactics, and outright despicable behavior, the British tabloid News of the World will surely be missed. This week, the Murdoch-owned rag officially became the most-hated brand in England after it was exposed that journalists had paid a private investigator to hack into the mobile phones of a murdered 13-year-old girl, victims of the 7/7 terrorist bombings, and who knows who else. The investigator and one of the paper’s reporters went to jail in 2007 for similar illegal acts against members of the royal family. Labor party leader Ed Miliband called the episode “a stain on the character of British journalism.” Prime Minister David Cameron came under some criticism in the wake of the scandal, since he is seen as close Murdoch and an executive in his company, Rebekah Brooks, who happened to be the editor of the tabloid during the time the hacking was taking place.
Today, News International (the News Corp. subsidiary in Britain) announced it will cease publication on Sunday after 168 years (42 of them under Murdoch’s wings). It is the highest-selling paper in the country, with 2.6 million daily readers.
Already there’s speculation this is just an attempt to fix a damaged brand — that Murdoch will reconstitute the paper under a different name or put the paper’s resources into other News International tabloid properties, such as the Sun.
But as this chapter of British journalism closes, Foreign Policy looks back at some of the paper’s most questionable journalistic moments in its recent past.
News of the World‘s relationship to scandal long predates Murdoch’s ownership. Time magazine in 1941 called the paper essential reading for millions of British homes with its “juicy dish of the week’s doings in divorce, scandal, abduction, assault, murder, and sport.”
For a brief period after the second world war, the paper experimented with publishing high brow fiction from well-known writers like Somerset Maugham. But the experiment failed, and readership dropped off.
In the 1960s, the paper went back to what it knew best: sex and scandal. It began paying celebrities to disclose personal secrets about themselves — often with disastrous consequences for them and their associates. The actress Diana Dors — facing debt and unpaid taxes — allowed the paper to write an expose about her life for £35,000. Serialized over 12 weeks, the film bombshell divulged details about her dead husband’s sex addiction. The Archbishop of Canterbury called her a “wayward hussy,” but it was a hit with the public.
In 1963, the paper paid Christine Keeler to discuss her role in one of Britain’s greatest political scandals — her brief affair with John Profumo, the war secretary. Turns out she also had other lovers — including a Soviet naval attaché, Eugene Ivanov, who also happened to be a spy. When the news broke, the press went into hysterics. Some said (falsely, apparently) that Profumo and Ivanov “shared” her and that there were orgies. To top it off, News of the World photographed her sitting naked on a chair. Tasteful, as ever.
‘Sick Nazi Orgy’
Who doesn’t love a Nazi orgy story? In 2008, News of the World secretly filmed Max Mosley — the head of Formula 1 motor racing at the time — engaged in what they said was sado-masochistic, Nazi-themed sexual role play with five hookers at a dungeon-themed party. The 68-year-old son of Oswald Mosley, England’s most famous fascist leader in the 1930s, admitted the encounter was sado-masochistic in nature, but denied the women were hookers or that there were Nazi themes — though the women appear to be dressed in Nazi uniforms.
“[There are] few things more unerotic than Nazi roleplay,” Mosley said. He sued the paper for invasion of privacy and was awarded $98,000 in damages.
The fake sheikh
What enterprising investigative reporter hasn’t pretended to be an Arab sheikh to trick rich and powerful people into exposing embarrassing secrets or performing illegal activities? What’s so wrong about that? News of the World reporter Mazher Mahmood, who was born in Britain to Pakistani immigrant parents, claimed to be responsible for putting over 100 criminals behind bars (though critics have questioned the number). The sheikh character he effected dressed “in flowing robes, with a huge gold Rolex on his wrist, and a deferential entourage of hired hands scuttling in his wake,” the Daily Telegraph reported. “A large slice of [the paper’s] editorial budget” funded his activities, according to the Telegraph.
Behind velvet ropes at VIP after-parties, the fake sheikh made friends with celebrities and their hangers-on. And he’d often catch them behaving in horrific ways. Stars were exposed doing drugs — and selling them — and one wealthy society doyenne slipped him embarrassing secrets about royals. He’s also responsible for secretly filming Dutchess of York Sarah Ferguson offering access to her ex-husband Prince Andrew for 500,000 British pounds (or close to $720,000) last year.
At best, it’s shady journalism and in extremely bad taste — except when he just flat out got things wrong. His biggest embarrassment came in 2002 when a story about a gang allegedly planning to kidnap former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham led to their arrest, only to get tossed from court after the evidence provided to Mahmood by a paid informant was deemed unreliable. His source was thought to have invented the entire story and Mahmood — the supposedly astute reporter — apparently believed it all. Critics also say his scoops have less journalism than straight-up entrapment.
“He is often held up as an example of the worst of British journalism, which critics claim will resort to any tactic, no matter how legally or ethically dubious, to net exclusive stories,” reported a Time magazine profile of him last year.
Long before the television show Dateline got into the controversial pedophile predator-catching game, News of the World was angering police, social workers, and journalists with a campaign to “name and shame” child abusers. Back in 2000, after the murder of 8-year-old Sarah Payne, the paper began publishing the names and photographs of known sex offenders in the country. The outing spawned a spate of mob attacks on the homes of the people named. One crowd of about 150 people in a South London neighborhood, threw stones, torched the car, and damaged the home of a convicted pedophile.
Similar scenes played out across the country, with unfortunate results. In one instance, a home belonging to a pediatrician (whose occupation was possibly mistaken for “pedophile” by the ignorant crowd) was vandalized; in another, an innocent man who was mistaken for one of the photographed pedophiles in the paper had his home vandalized.
One constable called the paper’s actions “grossly irresponsible.”
With the headline, “Caught!” News of the World had one of its biggest scoops last year after a hidden camera investigation allegedly exposed members of Pakistan’s cricket team taking a $240,000 bribe to “underperform” at certain moments in a match against England. The video showed an agent and bookmaker with ties to several players on the team taking money from undercover reporters posing as members of a professional sports betting syndicate.
It was one of the biggest scandals to hit the sport in recent years and the International Cricket Council — which oversees the league — suspended the players allegedly involved.
We could actually consider this fair journalism — though with incredibly shady tactics. Some critics said the paper sensationalized what was actually a somewhat less-than-heinous act by the players. Apparently, the things they agreed to do weren’t going to alter the course of the match, according to a sports columnist at the Guardian who clearly knows a lot more about the sport than I do. He called the actions by the players “small (over) steps.”
And, indeed, the sins were intentional foot faults by the bowlers — something akin to “balk” in American baseball at a couple points during the game. “While not necessarily affecting a game’s outcome — [it] can attract millions of dollars of bets across Asia,” according to the New York Times.
It ain’t exactly breaking open the Watergate affair, but we’ll miss not having News of the World to kick around anymore.