LONDON — The British are no strangers to scandals involving their politicians, their police and their press. But after a series of recent troubles that had already eroded public confidence in those pillars of society, the country is now in the grips of a crisis that engulfs all three.
Fallout from the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World tabloid spread further Friday with the arrest of a former editor who until recently was one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s closest aides. Andy Coulson was taken in for questioning by Scotland Yard amid accusations he signed off on payments to police officers in exchange for information, and knew about widespread hacking into cellphones by reporters on his staff. He was later released on bail.
Reporter Clive Goodman also was arrested. Goodman already spent time in jail, in 2007, for illegally intercepting voicemails left for aides to the royal family.
Cameron acknowledged that he and other politicians had sought too hard to cultivate ties with the media, including those belonging to Rupert Murdoch’s powerful empire, while turning “a blind eye” to questionable media practices. Murdoch’s News Corp. announced Thursday that it would be shutting down the News of the World this weekend.
“For people watching this scandal unfold, there is something very disturbing about what they see,” Cameron said. “Just think of who they put their trust in: the police to protect them, the politicians to represent them and the press to inform them. And all of them have been let down.”
Even before the hacking allegations exploded into the national consciousness after reports that the News of the World may have tapped into the voicemails of families of murder victims as well as movie stars and other celebrities, the reputations of lawmakers, journalists and the police had been tarnished.
Two years ago, Britons were outraged to learn that members of Parliament were claiming reimbursement from taxpayers for expenses such as home improvements and horse manure for their gardens. Lawmakers have pledged to clean up their act, but voter faith in their integrity dropped dramatically.
The police have been hit by accusations of using excessive force against protesters and spying on environmental activists. And criticizing the media is as much a pastime here as it is in the U.S.
“All the institutions of politics, press and police have emerged the worse for their involvement in the affair,” said Ian Burrell, the media editor at the Independent newspaper. “This is a big newspaper-reading society. People still take immense pride in the ‘mother of parliaments’ and the integrity of British bobbies. … This story is going to undermine public trust in the way society operates.”
Cameron said he would order public inquiries into the hacking allegations and into how better to regulate Britain’s ferociously competitive press. He said it was a “cathartic moment” for politicians and the media, a chance to institute necessary reforms. But it was unclear how quickly those inquiries can begin, given that the police investigation into the hacking allegations takes precedence.
Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labor Party, urged Cameron to apologize for “an appalling error of judgment” in hiring Coulson as his communications assistant, a decision that has become a major embarrassment for the prime minister. Cameron refused, saying he had wanted to give Coulson a “second chance” after the former editor assured him that he had not known of hacking by his staff at the sensation-seeking News of the World.
Coulson resigned earlier this year when police renewed their criminal probe of the hacking allegations. Scotland Yard’s original investigation was roundly criticized as deliberately halfhearted in order not to jeopardize the police force’s mutually beneficial relationship with the News of the World.
British media reports said that Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International, News Corp.’s British subsidiary, met with News of the World staff on Friday. The reports said she hinted that graver allegations of misconduct might lie ahead, which made closing the paper now the right decision.
Brooks is one of Rupert Murdoch’s most trusted confidants, so close to him that many observers believe the media baron’s decision to shut down the News of the World was an effort to protect her.
The scandal “could potentially go a lot of further in terms of unraveling,” said Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. “Nobody knows where this will all end.”