Journalism’s ‘Dark Arts’

Posted July 20th, 2011 at 3:20 pm (UTC-4)
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Hacking, Blagging, and Why the Murdoch Hacking Scandal is Nothing New

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

There’s an unofficial rule among British journalists: dog doesn’t bite dog.  In other words, reporters working at one Fleet Street tabloid should not expose the wrong doings of reporters at other Fleet Street tabloids, as there are plenty of wrong doings to go around.

That rule is just one of the many casualties of the burgeoning phone hacking scandal involving media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his now shuttered News of the World tabloid.  Murdoch may become another.

As CEO and founder of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch spent decades building the world’s second largest media conglomerate, measured by revenue, behind only the Walt Disney Company.  He is not a man known for his modesty, nor are the newsrooms of his nearly 200 newspapers, radio stations and global TV networks.

For decades, politicians in Australia, Britain, the United States and other nations have sought the endorsements of Murdoch’s newspapers, and scorned the wrath of his broadcasters.  As the New York TimesDavid Carr recently wrote:  “The News Corporation has historically used its four newspapers — it also owns The Sun, the Times of London, and the Sunday Times — to shape and quash public debate, routinely helping to elect prime ministers with timely endorsements while punishing enemies at every turn.”

It’s also been an open secret for years that some of his English papers – notably The Sun and News of the World – along with other British tabloids, have engaged in a variety of questionable activities collectively known among journalists as the “Dark Arts.”  Those arts allegedly include, but aren’t limited to, bribing civil servants and police, wiretapping the phones of public officials, using private investigators to obtain personal information, hacking mobile phones and something the Brits call “blagging” – the art of obtaining powerful information.   At times those actions have lead to prosecutions, more rarely convictions, but nothing in the past has hit News Corp – or journalism more generally – than this summer’s hacking scandal.

Red Tops and Dark Arts

“They caught us with dirty hands and built this hysteria,” Murdoch told a British parliamentary committee this week, referring to his other Fleet Street rivals.  It was a flash of the old Murdoch: bold, plain spoken and a bit blunt.  But the scope of this unfolding drama now threatens much of what he and others have spent decades building.  The result: a newer, far more contrite Murdoch than ever seen before.

“This is the most humble moment of my career,” he told the MPs on Tuesday.   “I have made my share of mistakes…invading people’s privacy is wrong.  Paying police officers is wrong.  But saying sorry is not enough.  Things must be put right – no excuses.”

Putting things right will take time, as will the several investigations by British and U.S. agencies already underway.  But the question remains: just how did journalists use their electronic “Dark Arts” tricks to get information?

“For years, most Fleet Street newspapers have been using illegal techniques to get access to information,” said reporter Nick Davies in 2009.  A correspondent for rival publication The Guardian, Davies has covered British journalists’ embrace of questionable tactics for a decade, compiling much of his work in the book “Flat Earth News.”  It was Davies, in fact, who broke news this month of the Milly Dowler phone hack – a fact apparently confirmed by James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and deputy COO at News Corp,  when he told MPs that he first learned of the hack from the Guardian.

Decades ago, the expression “Fleet Street” became slang for the many tabloid newspapers that once made the London road their home.  Rough, often bawdy and always titillating, the “Tabs,” or “Red Tops,” as they’re also known – are immensely profitable newspapers, but rarely associated with what you might call high-minded journalism.  Their credo: the more sensational a story, the better the headline – and the more copies sold.

Speaking on the television program “NewsWipe” in 2009, Davies told program host Charlie Brooker, “The more you look at Fleet Street’s use of the Dark Arts, the dirtier it gets.”  He continued:

“People are very frightened of the bullying Fleet Street newspapers.  Government in particular don’t like getting into fights with newspapers, so they back off.  I think if you ask ,’Where did the Dark Arts come from?,’ ultimately it’s about commercial pressure.  It’s about trying to get stories that nobody else has, without putting in the money or resources that you should.  And like so much of what’s gone wrong with our news organizations, ultimately it has to do with being corrupted by commercialism, and the Dark Arts are an example of that for sure.”

Apologies run in various News Corp. newspapers following the phone hacking scandal (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Whatever one might think about them, the Red Tops consistently break news, often with stories that ultimately (or grudgingly) find their way into more august journalistic enterprises.  The drive to “get the story” is intense, and Fleet Street journalists have rapidly adapted to the latest technologies.

For example, when most everyone spoke via land-line phones, the Tabs would pay British telecom engineers to place listening devices to eavesdrop on public officials.  When computers and email started to take off, they began using “Trojan Horse” emails containing attachments that would copy a target’s hard drive and send the contents to another computer – all anonymously.  In this “news at any cost” world, modern tactics live alongside the classics – a good old-fashioned cash bribe, delivered in an unmarked envelope, has never gone out of style.


“This Little Trick”

As mobile phones became ubiquitous, so, too, did journalists’ efforts to crack them.  “Part of the Dark Arts tradition in Fleet Street has been hacking into mobile phones,” says Davies:

“And this is a major industry, although Fleet Street continues to deny it.  Journalist Clive Goodman* got caught hacking into the mobile phone messages of three people on the staff of Prince Charles.  And because it was the Royal family, police reacted and Goodman got busted along with the private investigator who’d been doing the stuff for him, and they both ended up in prison.”

How easy are mobiles to hack?  It depends on the phone, but more on the type of hack used. Journalists have at times cracked their way into actual live mobile conversations, but as cell phone security has improved, this has become very difficult and costly.  But who needs cost when a simple trick will do?

Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror (yet another News Corp rival tabloid) and current host on CNN, recalls something he calls “that little trick.”  Writing in his book “The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade” Morgan recalls:

“Apparently if you don’t change the standard security code that every phone comes with, then anyone can call your number and, if you don’t answer, tap in the standard four digit code to hear all your messages.  I’ll change mine just in case, but it makes me wonder how many public figures and celebrities are aware of this little trick.”

For the record, Morgan, himself a former News of the World editor, says to the best of his knowledge this technique was never used to publish a story under his watch.

There are many more examples of digital hacks and privacy invasions by the Tabs, but they’re rarely been prosecuted.  An exception came in 2005, when Steve Whitamore, a private investigator in Hampshire, England,  became one of the few to actually pay a price for these actions.

Before his conviction, Whitamore was a legitimate private investigator.  But for years he had also been working on contract basis for several Red Tops, using a network of people he had set up who could get him access to a variety of secret record bases – a “dodgy” enterprise, as he later conceded.

Whitamore had people in the police who could access the police national computer.  He had people in social security who could look up medical records.  If a Fleet Street reporter saw a license plate, Whitamore knew someone who could look it up and tell them who the driver was.  And he knew a lot more, notably about mobile phones.

Says Nick Davies, “newspapers were ringing him up for illegal stuff and within half an hour he was delivering it – for a fee.” In 2005, Steve Whitamore was convicted for violating the Data Prevention Act and sent to prison.

After his release, Whitamore granted a brief interview to the BBC on Sept. 21, 2010, and a rare public peek into Fleet Street’s hidden practices:

Q: How did you end up working for journalists?
A: They approached me and just asked me if I could trace people for them.  I assumed it was for interviewing purposes, and I was happy to do so.

Q: Other than the interview addresses and telephone numbers, what else were these journalists looking for?
A: Towards the end, it got more and more personal.  Ultimately I couldn’t do it, but I provided them someone who could.

Q: How did you gather the information?
A: I would ask somebody to do it.  They would do it, ring me back.  Never any paperwork involved.   I would take it down in note-form and relay it to the reporter.

Q: You were prosecuted and convicted…are you surprised no journalists were prosecuted?
A: It would appear unfair.  Yes, it would appear that they should have stood up and be counted, but I wasn’t expecting any support from them…They actually asked me to do this on their behalf.  I suppose you could view it to my Oliver Twist to the press’s Fagin…This just got a little out of hand.”


Of Bribes and Blaggers

Other than outright digital hacking, another technique employed by the Red Tops combines the very new and the very old.  Called “blagging”, it’s basically an elaborate con job, where the blagger impersonates someone with high technological knowledge and security clearance to convince a lower-level worker to release information desired by journalists.

American hackers have a more clinical term for it – “social engineering” – but either way it gives talented blaggers access to digital information that’s off limits.  Notes Nick Davies,”There was one newspaper who had a former actor, who was like their own personal blagger, who learned how to speak with the kind of language of a British Telecom engineer.”

For seasoned observers of the Red Tops, this is old news.  Several U.K. parliamentary committees have led investigations into similar activities, usually following a high-profile hack such as occurred with Prince Charles and Camilla Bowles-Parker. In addition to paying private investigators for illegal information, the Tabs are widely believed to have been active in paying bribes to London’s Metropolitan Police Force, otherwise known as Scotland Yard.  After only five minutes reviewing documents, the former director of public prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, this week said it was “blindingly obvious” News of the World under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks made payments to corrupt police officials.

For her part, Brooks – who resigned from News Corp last week under the weight of the current scandal – admitted Tuesday “…the News of the World employed private detectives like most papers in Fleet Street.”  She also insists that she had never paid corrupt police for illegal information.  But that contradicts testimony she gave to the same committee back in 2003: “We have paid the police for information in the past,” she then said.


Who’s Left to Blame?

“As long as we have had tabloids, we have had tabloid scandals,” writes USC history lecturer Ryan Linkof in Wednesday’s New York Times:

“The work of the tabloids can be irritating, provocative, ethically questionable and even (as the scandal spectacularly shows) highly illegal, but when practiced according to existing laws, tabloid journalism can be an important player in modern culture, helping to mitigate some of the central tensions in democratic society.”

Murdoch’s Fleet Street adversaries may for the moment be celebrating the fall of the man who helped build it up, but his newspapers aren’t the only ones guilty of electronic snooping.  For more than a decade,  reporters, working with private investigators and others, have routinely pried open digital records and closed databases while British officials largely looked the other way.  Starting now, those practices are likely to stop…until, that is, the next big scoop has papers flying off the shelf.  And it may not be in Britain; just this week another phone-hacking scandal erupted involving journalists and politicians – this time in Zimbabwe.

The current scandal has already shuttered one of Fleet Street’s oldest papers – the News of the World – and more may fall.  Yet there’s no doubt that tabloid newspapers as a whole will weather this crisis and continue poking, provoking and otherwise stirring things up in Britain and around the world.  For all the sneers and accusations, the Tabs are simply too popular to fade away.

What will likely diminish, however, is the Red Tops embrace of those so-called Dark Arts.  At least for a while.

Still, blame must be assigned.  Some are trying to pin it on Rupert Murdoch.  But if this week is any indication, he’s having none of it.

When asked by a Member of Parliament whether he as News Corporation’s CEO “…accept(ed) that you are ultimately responsible for this whole fiasco,” the blunt Murdoch of old was back.  “Nope,” he replied.  “People I trusted, I don’t know who, let me down.  I think frankly I’m the best person to clean this up.”


*In 2007, while an editor at News of the World, Goodman was arrested and imprisoned for illegally intercepting phone traffic from members of Britain’s royal family.  He was fired by News Corp, but later received a legal settlement on the basis that his dismissal was illegal.  He was arrested again in July 2011, along with former News of the World editor Andy Coulson in connection with the current phone hacking scandal.

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