The Biggest Story Few of us Heard: British Phone-Tapping & American Media Apathy


Ladies and gentlemen, have I got a story for you. Please, take your seats and listen closely. It’s a story about the fall of the mighty and about personal tragedy. It’s a story that involves one of the most powerful men in the world. It features princes and sexual dalliances. It’s a story that speaks to our paranoia and justifies it, like the Snowden revelations and the US government’s wire-tapping program. And most important, ladies and gentlemen, it has murder. It has desperate parents and missing children. A mighty corporation, 168 years in existence, crumbles at our feet. This story has been out there for years.  The question is, why aren’t we paying attention?

The British hacking scandal, which led to the end of The News of the World, has one element which likely saps most of our interest: it’s a British story. It happened far away, to people who speak with Game of Thrones accents and who radically mispronounce the word “soccer”. It doesn’t really affect us, does it.

As Americans, we like to focus our paranoia on the government. We are rightly concerned that the NSA can collect our personal information, can read and store the metadata off our e-mails. The government, which wants to pull the guns out of our dead hands while it pulls money our of our pockets to give to the poor (God forbid), has us under surveillance. If the activity of the News of the World happened here, would there be such an outcry, besides the knee-jerk attacks on Obama by Fox News? Do we really appreciate the power wielded by the media? The potential for abuse? The actual abuse? Or is it just something that happened in England?


          It has Royalty and Sex:

This scandal may have gained public interest around 2006, although the activities in question took place at least as far back as the 90’s. Princes William and Harry, as well as William’s aide, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, began to wonder why the News of the World seemed to know things that were pretty much only between them. Medical information, the details of private discussions, were all being revealed in the newspaper.

According to the New York Times, in 2006, Prince Harry went to a strip club, had some fun with its employees, and became the subject of a royal scandal. William called him and left a teasing message about it. The message, not leaked by either brother, appeared verbatim in NOTW. The royals began to realize that there were messages on their voicemails that had been played, but not by them.

The Metropolitan Police’s investigation of the scandal revealed that celebrities such as actress Sienna Miller, Elle McPherson, Steve Coogan, Jude Law, and literally hundreds of others had been hacked, had their personal messages and other information stolen. At the time, NOTW royal editor Clive Goodman and investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who did some of the hacking for a lucrative sum, were each sentenced to several months in prison.

          It Shook the Pillars of Government:

UnknownRebekah Brooks, during the scandal

A few days ago, former NOTW editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson stood together in the dock, waiting to hear their respective verdicts. Brooks held the editor’s chair from 2000-2003, when she left to join The Sun. Coulson took her post and held it from 2003 – 2009.   Like Brooks, he moved on a better position: he became the communications director to British Prime Minister David Cameron. In the British press, he was often described as the “spin doctor” for the PM. (Cameron has since apologized for having hired Coulson.)

imagesBrooks before the scandal

On Tuesday this week, Coulson was found guilty, but Brooks was cleared. Metropolitan Police alleged that the records of Mulcaire and others like him revealed that thousands of phones were hacked since the 90’s. Throughout the investigation and trial, both Brooks and Coulson denied wrongdoing. They claimed they had no idea that the phone hacking was taking place. Parenthetically, Brooks’ husband was also awaiting a verdict. He allegedly helped his wife hide evidence—apparently, a trash bag was found containing relevant records and her laptop –and he and his wife faced separate charges of conspiracy to pervert justice. He and his wife were both cleared of all charges.

          Here’s where this story gets horrible.

Amanda “Milly” Dowler was a 13-year-old girl from Surrey, England who was on her way to school on 3/31/02 when she disappeared. Her body was found 6 months later. Details of her death were not revealed, but the man who apparently did it, Levi Bellfield, was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 23, 2011.

Unknown-1Milly Dowler

Milly had been missing from 3/21/02 – 9/18/02, and in those six months, her parents left messages on her voicemail, but those messages had been deleted while she was missing. Her phone service deleted voicemails that had been accessed after 72 hours. During those months, it was easy for her desperate parents to believe that Milly was listening to the messages and deleting them. Could there have been important evidence that would have led to Bellfield sooner in those deleted messages?

Brooks was editor of the NOTW when the Dowler investigation took place, but it was not her first.   Sarah Payne was another Surrey girl visiting her grandparents on July 1, 2000, playing with siblings, when she was abducted.  Her abductor allegedly smiled and waived to her brother while taking her away. 8-year-old Sarah was found dead on July 11.

Brooks was intimately involved with this case. She became close friends with her mother (also Sara, but no h) and used her NOTW influence to help pass “Sarah’s Law” into effect, England’s version of Meghan’s Law.


Apparently, Brooks gave Sara a gift to keep in touch, a cell phone. Sara’s phone was also hacked by the NOTW, and The Guardian has alleged it was the phone Brooks gave her that was hacked.

Again, Brooks was cleared of all charges two days ago. It is not contradicted that hacking went on during her time at NOTW, but it was not proven in British Court that she knew of it or participated in it.  When NOTW closed on July 10, 2011 as a result of this scandal, the last issue featured an op-ed from Sara Payne thanking Brooks and NOTW for all their help.

          So why don’t we care?

England is celebrity-obsessed; it harbors a gossip-hungry, behemoth media willing to cut throats to be first with a story…just like the US. Recall, a former princess was killed when she was being pursued in a high-speed chase with the paparazzi. What is surprising is how that doesn’t happen more often.

Is it really any different here? Watch Nancy Grace every weeknight to see the murder of innocents wrung for every flake of ratings gold. Go to the grocery checkout and look around at the twisted, altered faces of the famous, walking on the beach with a new bikini after daring to gain 20 extra pounds, or caught cheating by a grimacing wife, or husband.

We are surrounded by news of identity theft, a million dollar industry. People follow us to the ATM and enter cards that steal our passwords. People in coffee shops have computer sensors that memorize the keystrokes of the laptop of the guy at the next table. Another bank password stolen.

We hear the ongoing saga every day, “Where in the World is Edward Snowden.” He tells us the NSA has access to all of our information, and takes advantage of that access. Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who broke Snowden’s story, is making the rounds on television talk shows defending him… and defending himself from allegations of journalistic over-reaching.

Doesn’t the NOTW scandal inform us that we should be watching our media a little more closely? And shouldn’t we be talking about this story more? This story has everything….except a happy ending.

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About Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is a Miami lawyer still deciding what he wants to do for a living. Once a lover of Pynchon, Pinter, and any other artist whose work he barely understood, he has since "come home" to genre fiction and fandom, where he truly belongs. He focuses most of his fan-attention on his wife Elena and his three little girls, who will one day be a female president, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a supermodel/astrophysicist. (He's not sure which one will be which yet.)

3 Responses to The Biggest Story Few of us Heard: British Phone-Tapping & American Media Apathy

  1. Robert Phillips says:

    Your overall thesis is correct, although it’s a different issue. Some of the stories you raised–the tax scandal, Benghazi–turned out to be non-stories, and that enraged a right wing desperate to get dirt on the President. Not to suggest Benghazi was not a tragedy, but it wasn’t the key to impeachment that so many seek thinking they’re going to find the Grail. And not to imply that there’s no dirt on this President. You just need smarter, more competent people looking than someone like Issa.

    Regarding the focus on the Kardashains, Sterling, et al, don’t get me started.

    • KT says:

      Why was Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi? What are the odds, statistically speaking, of the 7 people involved in the Tea Party imbroglio, all having their hard drives crash? You’re very dismissive of very legitimate questions, and you label incompetent those with whom you disagree.

  2. KT says:

    Not to belittle the British tabloid story, but the American press has largely ignored a host of stories a lot closer to home: Fast and Furious; Benghazi; the IRS scandal; border security/immigration; the “reset”/(“overcharge”) with Russia (including having a lot more flexibility after the election); the disastrous leading from behind in the Middle East; whistling past the graveyard with round after round of quantitative easing; a corporate tax policy that is creating the giant sucking sound that Ross Perot once warned about… all the news that’s fit to print- on p A19, beneath the fold. Personally, I’m more concerned with Google & Co. monitoring my activity than either Rupert Murdoch or the NSA. Forget “Where’s Edward Snowden?” Where in the world is Woodward and Bernstein? The closest in today’s media: Sharyl Attkisson, and she resigned from CBS after having one too many stories squelched. If only she focused on Donald Stern or the Kardashians rather than Benghazi, who knows? She could’ve had Scott Pelley’s seat.

    In my home state, Democratic primary voters just nominated a man for governor whose biggest accomplishment as Lt Governor was (mis)managing the expenditure of $170 million for a health care exchange that didn’t work (the state will likely spend north of $60 million more to glom on to CT’s plan). But hey, 4 more years, right? A virtual third term for the departing Martin O’Malley, the inventor of the rain tax (I’m not kidding; look it up). All the while, a trained and compliant media shelters the incompetent and throws a news blackout over anyone attempting to stand athwart the juggernaut to yell, “stop!” In my eyes, this is the real scandal of the media, and it’s on this side of the Atlantic.