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The Flame-Haired Fatale of Britain's Phone-hacking Scandal

Here’s what Rebekah Brooks, once Rupert Murdoch’s favorite flame-haired executive and now on trial in London with her erstwhile lover (another Murdoch favorite), is guilty of:

Self-protection.

True, the former News International chief executive stands charged with approving payments to British public officials when she edited the Sun, currently Britain’s stupidest newspaper. And true too, both Brooks and her co-defendant/ex-lover Andy Coulson once edited the News of the World, which is now defunct, but used to hold the title of Britain’s stupidest newspaper. And true finally, various people working for that now extinct newspaper were fond of hacking into the telephones of actor Hugh Grant, singer Paul McCartney, various athletic hunks, assorted politicians, rival journalists, and, unfortunately, teenaged kidnap victims, and both Brooks and Coulson, not being complete idiots, had to know that the information retrieved on all of these people wasn’t very likely the result of a few psychic abilities.

Yet is tapping phones a terrible idea for anyone who works for a media outlet? Generally, yes. But maybe not in Britain.

The following is an example of why I’m not certain Rebekah Brooks and her dear editor friend should be convicted, and it comes straight from the ongoing trial: When Coulson was editor of News of the World, he confronted David Blunkett, who used to be Britain’s home secretary, over Blunkett’s three-year relationship with a married woman.

“My job is to sort out the nonsense from the accurate,” the editor told the politician—always a noble goal for a journalist, although you do have to ask yourself what’s so very newsworthy about an affair, especially since the home secretary was at the time of the romance unmarried? For answer, I refer you to the newspaper’s local nickname back when it was still functioning: News of the Screws.

Yes, practically any time anyone the United Kingdom had an affair with anyone else, you could be sure to read about it in that periodical. The tradition goes way back. In 1963, for instance, war minister John Profumo’s relationship with a prostitute (who also slept with a Russian diplomat) came to light thanks to News of the World. In 1973, an earl had to renounce his peerage for appreciating prostitutes even more than Profumo. In 1986, the parliamentarian and bad novelist Jeffrey Archer, who also liked prostitutes, lied about his preferences and won 500,000 pounds (a British libel record) from another newspaper for reporting the truth about his sex life. Later he was tried and convicted of perjury thanks to News of the World. As it happened, the newspaper was on equally firm ground with its scoop on poor Blunkett, its employees having hacked into Blunkett’s phone. And it published the details shortly after its editor met with the cabinet minister.

“We say it is absolutely inconceivable that a newspaper would publish a story of that kind about a serving cabinet minister without knowing it was true,” the trial’s prosecutor railed the other day. “Mr. Coulson did know it was true … because of the voicemails which had been obtained.”

In Britain, where libel laws are so draconian that throngs of foreigners, especially rich foreigners, like to make their way to London just to grab a few more pounds—among them, a Saudi billionaire who actually won a lawsuit against an American author for a book that wasn’t even published in the UK—you better be sure every printed syllable is accurate. So News of the World, not wishing to lose a lawsuit in the world’s libel mecca, had to make sure of its facts.

The one thing I hold against the flame-haired virago is this: it is thanks to the publicity surrounding her doings and her ongoing trial that Britain has just initiated a potential death knell to free speech. A new royal charter on press regulation has just been approved. The watchdog organization can impose on those media outlets stupid enough to sign up fines of up to 1 million pounds for infractions—although just what constitutes an infraction no one seems to know. Needless to say, no working journalists or editors are permitted to be part of this watchdog outfit.

“Chances of us signing up for state interference: zero,” tweeted Tony Gallagher, editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Chances of the voluntary UK watchdog agency turning into something permanent, fixed, and required of news outlets: pretty damn good. Alas.

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