Usually the penalty for hackers – especially hackers who get juicy information and provide it to the public – isn't terribly severe. For News of the World – Britain's biggest-selling newspaper – the penalty was death.
News International, which is owned by News Corp., the company controlled by controversial Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, announced today it would close the paper shortly after London Metropolitan Police announced it had the names of 4,000 people whose cell phones may have been hacked investigators being paid by News of the World.
The paper is also accused of bribing a small number of London Metropolitan Police with as much as 100,000 pounds for information on high-profile investigations and to help NOTW hack the phones or get access to police files of victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks and victims of particularly high profile crimes, in an effort to get information other publications could not match.
A statement from Murdoch said charges of widespread phone hacking and payments to police are "deplorable and unacceptable." Closing NOTW is one of a series of steps News International will take to fix the problem, he wrote.
In a letter to the staff, Murdoch's son James Murchoch, who heads News International, said most of the bribery and hacking had taken place in 2005 and 2006, had been the work of individuals, not a policy or approved practice at the paper, and that the two editors most responsible went to jail.
In a private conversation with a sexual assault victim who secretly taped the discussion, private investigator Glen Mulcaire said the hacking was far from an individual effort. A "committee" of reporters and editors would decide on targets and assign investigators to the case.
A story in The Telegraph Wednesday quoted police as saying the hacks were common, accepted and directed not only at public figures, but at the phone accounts of British troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq and of their relatives.
The incident that put NOTW on the chopping block was one in which NOTW investigators allegedly hacked into and copied contact information and messages from the phone of Graham Foulkes, whose son was killed in a terrorist attack in London in 2005.
The outrage at the blatant invasion of a father's privacy and grief were nothing to the public rage that followed revelations that NOTW may have accessed the phone mail and contacts of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who disappeared and was eventually found murdered.
The girl's parents believed for months the girl was still alive because when they checked her phone messages they sometimes found some deleted, presumably by their daughter.
In fact, police allege, the messages were being copied and deleted by NOTW investigators and reporters.
Readers, non-readers and media haters on Twitter are flaming former employees of the tabloid – which split its time between covering scandals and creating them – for their participation in a scandal caused by spying on ordinary people rather than the celebrities who are a common target of such attacks.
Three News of the World (NOTW) staffers were arrested in 2006 and two spent time in jail for allegedly hacking into the phones of members of the British royalty.
Princess Di, actor Hugh Grant, actress Sienna Miller and a host of other rich-and-beautiful people have had their private lives splashed across the NOTW. There was little public backlash even after revelations that much of the information came from unquestionably illegal penetrations of private cell phones. British tabloids – which have a far more larger reputation for salacious gossip and unethical information-gathering than American gossip rags, usually rely on eavesdropping, eyesdropping and bribing domestic staff for information.
Two years ago, rival newspaper The Guardian ran a story charging it was more than just the writers and editors covering the royals who were involved in phone hacks.
Its story charged that top government officials, soccer stars, and even the editor of The Sun, another Murdoch paper, had also had cell phones cracked or tapped.
NOTW executives continue to paint the incidents as being driven by overzealous, individual reporters, editors or investigators on contract, not an effort backed by management or the Murdoch empire as a whole.
NOTW Editor Colin Myler's message to staffers yesterday called the charges of phone hacking "if proved, the most unimaginable breach of journalistic ethics."
He also said called public anger "unfair," and went out of his way to mention some of the incidents took place as long as nine years ago.
That would make a big difference if one or two bad apples had occasionally bent a few rules but that management in both the newsroom and executive suites had rejected those methods and tried to police their own staff to keep it from happening again.
On unimaginable breach of ethics is an anomaly; two might be a coincidence. "Three is a trend," according to a journalistic aphorism.
If three is a trend, what is four thousand?
It's an indication of systemic, persistent corruption among reporters, editors and the ownership of the paper.
Hacking isn't easy; it can't be done accidentally; it does not straddle any ethical lines.
Hacking the phones of people who are not public figures is so far beyond the borders of acceptable behavior in any profession (let alone one that depends on its reputation for at least trying to get the facts right and gather information without breaking the law) that there are barely maps describing how to get there, let alone how to get back.
Hacking the dead, hacking families and friends who are grieving for the loss of those they love, not figuring out to play out their time as characters in a high profile news story? There is no way to find your way back from that. As a reporter no source would ever trust you; as an editor, no readership would ever believe you're not cheating with every story. For an organization that not only crossed ethical boundaries frequently, but largely lived in the wilderness beyond, there is no guide to help find the way back or recover any credibility with the audience whose belief in you is your only real asset.
In most cases it's ridiculous to suggest a whole organization should be punished or eliminated for the sins of some who work in it. Normally those demands come from extremists whose accusations are less well founded than the offenses that outraged them.
In this case it's not the individuals bringing corruption into a pristine organization. It's the organization that is corrupt and that infects individuals into thinking it's acceptable to twist the most fundamental principles of the profession and abuse the people your organization only exists to help.
If it were only a few bad apples, they would have been picked out of the barrel during the investigations and arrests in 2005 and 2006. Reports that the hacking continued without pause right up to the present indicates how deep the rot really goes.
News of the World doesn't have much of a reputation for accuracy or ethics to lose. It has been a screaming examples of lurid, exaggerated sensationalism almost since it was founded 168 years ago. Its departure won't rob the world of anything but a source of cheesy nudie pics and monosyllabic lookie-lou coverage of blood and celebrity. The loss of all three will raise the average level of quality of journalism overall just by eliminating one of its worst examples.
It won't convince most readers that NOTW was unique, that not all journalists take the easy and sleazy path every time they get a chance, or even that the Murdoch empire is really contrite in its effort to make amends, which look more like spin-doctoring and apple-polishing than they do real contrition.
It's hard to say a whole institution is corrupt and should be abolished, because institutions are just collections of the people who work there; collective culture is just the set of assumptions they all operate under, whether or not they all agree. No institution, however consistent its behavior, is so homogeneous that every member of it is guilty of the sins of the few or the ugliest parts of its "tradition."
At News of the World, the corruption spread too far to stop with a few firings and more discipline. Rarely as I agree with anything the global-economy-manipulating Murdoch empire does, shutting down News of the World is the right thing to do.
It has outlived its usefulness; it has outlived our tolerance. It has outlived the capacity of even its most sleaze-addicted readers for its particular brand of corrosion. Time for it to die.