Sunday, July 31, 2011

Don't cheer yet

Everybody is cheering that President Obama and Congressional leaders have reached an agreement on raising the debt ceiling. It behooves all of us to remember, though, that Speaker Boehner thought he had reached one a week or so back, too, only to find himself and the tentative deal torpedoed by his own caucus.

Until Speaker Boehner has House Republicans locked in the building with enough hired muscle to keep each one under physical threat, the fat lady hasn't sung.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Why are you surprised?

The New York Times article by Elisabeth Bumiller is entitled, "Nation Calls Capital Mad, and It Agrees". It concerns the ongoing, and seemingly deadlocked, crisis over raising the debt ceiling.
“I never saw anything like this, and I never thought I would see anything like this,” said Laurence H. Meyer, a former Federal Reserve governor who has been fielding calls from worried hedge fund clients to his Washington research firm, Macroeconomic Advisers. “I never appreciated how dysfunctional our political system is.”
You didn't?

Where have you been, Mr. Meyer and the rest of you who profess shock that things have come to this pass?

The rhetoric that encouraged the far right to make its stand here and now has been blaring loud and clear from powerful voices in the media and behind closed corporate doors for thirty years. If you're surprised there are people who would seek a drastic solution to what they've been told is an apocalyptic calamity perpetrated by irrational, wasteful, contemptibly irresponsible political opponents, you're guilty of willful blindness.

A Homicide moment

Homicide: Life on the Street remains one of my favorite TV series of all time. After mourning the reduction to a cardboard cutout of the John Munch character in his post-Homicide incarnation, I revisited a few episodes from the series' early years. I ran across a scene that captured the show's greatness, and incidentally touched on three of my favorite characters.

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead if you've never seen the 3rd season episode "Crosetti.")

Shift commander Lt. Al Giardello has happened upon Det. Stan Bolander in a hallway. Bolander is in charge of investigating the recent death of fellow detective Steve Crosetti.
Giardello: Any word from the medical examiner about Crosetti? About the cause of death?

Bolander: Not yet. I asked Scheiner to be thorough -- to be sure.

G: I know everybody's on you to do right by Steve, to make sure it doesn't come out a suicide.

B: Is that what you're asking, Lieutenant? To make it a murder? A murder with no murderers, a murder that can't be solved? [pause] If you order me to do it, I'll do it; I mean, hell, my clearance rate is so low these days, I mean, one more open case ain't gonna make any difference.

Now, everybody says, you know, "do it for Steve." And I keep thinking, I mean, if he chose to commit suicide, what right do I have -- what right does any of us have -- to make that go away? [pause] I don't agree with what he did, but if that's his final statement, should I wipe that clear? Just for our peace of mind?

I mean, nobody wants to admit it, but everybody knows what really happened.

G: If it's ruled a suicide, his name will come off the board. If it's a murder, Crosetti's name will be up there all the time -- reminding us.

In the old days, the Italians wouldn't bury a suicide in the graveyard or consecrated ground. They'd take the body out of the village and dig a hole at the point where two roads crossed: il croce di due cammini, the crossroads. The Italians believed that if someone should come to the crossroads and choose to end his life, that he should be buried where those who had the strength to go on could walk over him.

B: [pause] The Italians are an unforgiving lot.

G: I know -- but we make great pasta. It balances out.

B: [pause] You want me to quit? You want me to stop my investigation?

G: [pause] No.
I love this scene for several reasons. First, Giardello is played by Yaphet Kotto, an actor whose magnificent physicality first caught my attention in Brubaker (I particularly remember his massive hands clapping at the end). Kotto's Giardello is a brooding presence hanging over Bolander, a physical manifestation of the psychological pressure the other detectives are bringing to bear on him.

Second, Bolander is portrayed by Ned Beatty. Beatty doesn't act as Bolander, he brings Bolander to shambling, cranky life, complete with fallen arches (or so I imagine from his walk); a deep sadness, after years of close encounters with violent death, masked by a gruff and often discomfited public face; and a bullheaded determination to do his job.

Third, this scene revolves around a man who isn't there, the erstwhile detective Steve Crosetti. In the truncated first and second seasons of Homicide, Crosetti was played by the criminally underrated Jon Polito. To lose Polito at NBC's insistence was a great disappointment, even though new cast member Isabella Hoffman did a fine job in her own right. The producers (Tom Fontana in particular, I believe) managed to turn this backstage turmoil to the show's advantage by making Polito's departure irreversible and permanent within the show's continuity. The fallout deepened our understanding of and appreciation for those who remained.

Fourth, Beatty and Kotto deftly used silence to give ideas and emotions a chance to sink in. The impact would have been much lessened if they both hadn't had a terrific sense of timing. (I suppose this could be a tribute to the editing instead.)

Finally, the issues raised are weighty and not easily settled. Is suicide a statement of strength or weakness? Is it more important to honor the (presumed wishes of the) dead, or to soothe the feelings of those who remain? Should those who "speak for the dead," in Pembleton's oft-quoted phrase, occasionally be silent?

It's the little moments that make for a great show. You can muster all the crazy situations you want (Homicide resorted to its share of gimmicks, like sniper attacks and serial killings), but in the end what matters is how well your characters stand when nothing much is happening. This scene is as representative as any of how great those "nothing much is happening" moments were on Homicide.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Background on patent trolls

Courtesy The Browser, a link to a good piece by Planet Money's Alex Blumberg and NPR's Laura Sydell about software patents. The piece pays special attention to the role (some would call it the outsized role) that former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold's company Intellectual Ventures plays in current software patent disputes. After you've read this article, or listened to the This American Life radio piece on which it is based, you might have a better idea of why Myhrvold's name is mud throughout Silicon Valley, even though no one will admit to that sentiment on the record.

I've written a couple of pieces on the woes being caused by patent troll Lodsys, the second of which, "Lodsys sues developers", is representative of my feelings about entities like Lodsys that exist solely to profit off of intellectual property they did not originate (and which, if we had a functioning patent system, would likely never have been granted patent status). Blumberg's and Sydell's work gives a broader look at how patent trolls undermine the business of innovating.

One of the many illuminating bits of information that Blumberg and Sydell dug up is just how Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures is tied into some of these patent trolls. Intellectual Ventures turns out to have a "financial interest" in a patent troll profiled in the article, Oasis Research. So even though IV ostensibly sold some of its patents to Oasis, IV stands to take a cut of whatever profits Oasis makes off of coercing payments for those patents.

Oasis Research has exactly the same address, right down to the suite number, as Lodsys. Does anybody think IV doesn't have a silent interest in Lodsys, and won't take a cut of that company's profits as well? Only time and court documents will tell.

The article gives Myhrvold a chance to defend Intellectual Ventures; he does so by spouting empty clich├ęs about helping patentholders get the money they deserve for their ideas. Myhrvold comes out so badly in this piece, in fact, that I'd score it low on the fairness meter were it not that Lodsys' defense in its own blog is just as unconvincing as Myhrvold's arguments. Moreover, even when given the chance to tell the world how much good Intellectual Ventures had done for the patentholders it claims to be helping, IV's cofounder could only name two deals it had brought about. That's two deals for a portfolio containing tens of thousands of patents. Not a tremendous batting average.

Whatever good Myhrvold thinks he's doing is, on the evidence, far outweighed by the evil he is wreaking on thousands of individual software developers and small companies. And I'm convinced that a man as smart as Myhrvold knows exactly how rapacious he's being and how little good he's doing. But then, Myhrvold is rich enough to have spent time researching and writing a 6-volume cookbook that you and I will never be able to afford, so he clearly doesn't have to give a shit what I or anyone else thinks.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

On the New York Times paywall

LongReads linked to an upbeat look by Seth Mnookin in New York Magazine at the Times' performance in the immediate wake of its introduction of digital subscriptions -- and, more to the point, its concurrent capping of the number of free articles non-subscribers are allowed to read. The article uses publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.'s tenure as a lens through which to review the Times' history, and credits him with persevering through tough times and a great deal of personal criticism.
The bottom line for the paywall is more than the bottom line: The Times has taken a do-or-die stand for hard-core, boots-on-the-ground journalism, for earnest civic purpose, for the primacy of content creators over aggregators, and has brought itself back from the precipice.
I finally took my own stand by subscribing, in spite of my dislike that the Times doesn't provide an option for pure Web access (I only read the paper on a browser). I want to support the hard work of real journalists. I therefore hope Mnookin is right, and that the Times has found a way to survive in this new age.

Did the far-right's success create the conditions for the Norway shootings?

That's the claim made in an article by Stratfor posted in Real Clear World.

It's a provocative thesis. I don't know that I buy it, but it's worth considering.

(Thanks to The Browser for the link.)

Summing up slackerdom

From Adrianne Jeffries' piece in the New York Observer that is not about slackerdom but about hipsterdom, a great description of the former:
... think back to the moment when you realized you were grown up enough to buy candy whenever you wanted. Then imagine extending that phase indefinitely, for years.
As for the article, Jeffries thinks hipsterdom plus money will not yield the quirky idyll Brooklyn's new immigrants envision. She's right.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link, and for the best summary title I've seen in a while: "A Twee Grows in Brooklyn.")

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rupert's attention threshold

Reading a New York Times analysis of yesterday's appearance by Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks before a House of Commons committee, you might be forgiven for wondering, "Who's running this insane asylum?"

The Guardian noted that James Murdoch did not trouble his father with some information:
James Murdoch denied the large out-of-court settlements to the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor (£700,000), and publicist Max Clifford (£1m including legal costs), authorised by him in 2008, had not been pitched so high to buy their silence. He insisted the settlement level was based on legal advice, or in the case of Clifford due to the ending of a wider contract.

James Murdoch also revealed he had authorised the settlements but had not told his father until 2009 after the case became public, saying the payments were too small to be reported to a higher board.
(The New York Times also included this information in an early summary of the Murdochs' testimony, but the reference vanished when I refreshed the article.)

This begs the question: what sum would have gotten the board's, and Rupert Murdoch's, attention?

I don't know how often companies the size of News Corporation have to reach private settlements with litigants, nor what size such settlements usually are, but it strikes me as odd that you wouldn't advise the chairman and founder of the company that million-pound settlements had been reached. These weren't nuisance lawsuits, after all: they involved high-profile claimants with serious grievances against the company. I say this shows that Rupert has decided that if worse comes to worst, he'll hang James out to dry -- and James has agreed to this arrangement, undoubtedly for an as-yet undisclosed price (though probably not for the chairmanship of News Corp., if James is sacrificed for Rupert).

Oh, and as for the payments not being "pitched so high to buy their silence"? Spare us. News Corp. legally insisted on their silence as part of the settlements.

M. Molly Backes on writing

I'm taking a break from Murdoch/News Corp. coverage for the day, since I haven't seen any huge news emerge from the Murdoch/Murdoch/Brooks show in the House of Commons. There's probably something worth blogging about there, but having just seen Jon Stewart eviscerate Fox News for its craven attempt to paint the ongoing phone-hacking saga as a manufactured conspiracy, a pile-on by the liberal media, I feel that anything I could write about today's developments would be deadly dull.

So ... more writing about writing. Why?

Well, the last time I dipped my toe into these waters, I felt the result was, um, deadly dull. No, it was worse: not just dull, but pointless. First write clearly, then worry about writing well was the gist of it, and even then I knew at some level that it was a stupid argument. What the hell does it even mean?

I know what happened. I liked the first part of the book review, disliked the second part, had to guess at what the book itself was about from the review, invested so much time that I was damned if I wouldn't get something out of it, and ... well, from such rotten foundations was a lousy blog entry born.

Enough of the past, though, and back to the question: why more writing about writing?

The Browser pointed me to M. Molly Backes' blog entry, "How to Be a Writer", in which she attempted to give a budding writer (or rather, the budding writer's anxious mother) tips on becoming a professional writer. Normally I don't believe in airy-fairy, non-step-by-step "advice." If it's not a recipe that anybody can follow, the advice is useless as far as I'm concerned. When it comes to creative expression, though, I make an exception.

Backes gives Mom a bunch of what sound like jokey tips for how to encourage her daughter, the would-be author: "Let her be bored"; "Insist she spend time with the family." But Backes is serious, and I get what she's driving at. Being a writer is all about chewing on experiences and emotions, and you don't introspect if you're constantly processing new stimuli.

Backes has other good tips, but I won't reiterate them here: get them from the source, not an intermediary. Hers are the words of someone who has written for pay, who understands her own writing process, and who knows that writing is hard, intimate, revealing work.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Corporate government

Last year the Guardian excerpted a part of the tenth-anniversary edition of her book No Logo. Klein's book is all about the idea that corporations have decided brands are more important than products. For the tenth anniversary edition, she wonders whether that corporatist philosophy has overtaken the U.S. government as well. She has some thoughtful remarks about the likely inevitable backlash against Obama for proving to be less than the savior he was marketed as during the campaign.

Ecuador rain forest preservation plan

This story got buried among all my browser tabs. Johann Hari of the Independent wrote about a proposal to save a chunk of the Ecuadoran rain forest. The intriguing twist about the Ecuadoran situation is, the area to be preserved sits on top of 20% of the country's proven oil reserves.

More information is available in a Washington Post piece from 2009.

The conservation effort would be small relative to Brazil's enthusiastic deforestation efforts, but carrying it out would be better than not. Unfortunately, Ecuador's president is under intense pressure to let oil companies open the area up.

News Corp. board is silent

The New York Times' Dealbook blog says News Corp.'s board's independent directors "have remained silent amid the widening scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s media empire."

Is this a surprise?

Nobody buys into this company without knowing it's run according to Rupert Murdoch's pleasure, just as nobody buys into Apple without knowing Steve Jobs calls the shots. The boards are window dressing. The difference is, Murdoch is now vulnerable.

Background on Scotland Yard phone-hacking investigation

The New York Times has a good rundown on how Scotland Yard mishandled the phone-hacking investigation, with a special focus on the close ties between the Yard and News International.

The extremists want to burn the house down

Contrary to what you might think from this blog, I'm not ignoring the Congressional impasse on raising the debt ceiling. I just haven't seen any developments that merit comment, or at least merit comment that a million others haven't written.

Even the bipartisan plan proposed by six senators isn't going to go far, if the behavior of the bulk of House Republicans is any indicator. The Senate might approve the plan, and House Speaker Boehner might agree with it, but Tea Party fiscal extremism holds most if not all the rest of House Republicans in its thrall. Boehner, their nominal leader, can't get them to pull in his direction.

I wonder if those representatives genuinely believe that holding a gun to our nation's collective head is the right thing to do, fiscally speaking. I think a lot of them do, especially those newly elected, who have no experience with government.

These ideologues don't care that we got into our current predicament over a long period of time. They don't care that the responsible way to get out of it will require a long time, too. They've got a full head of steam, they're keeping one another's spirits up, they're convinced they're on the side of the angels. No compromise like that proposed by the Senate's Gang of Six is going to satisfy them. They want to impose their drastic and unrealistic form of fiscal discipline, and they won't settle for anything less.

They don't trust what people who know better, including most old Washington hands, are telling them the fallout will be. They don't trust facts and they don't believe the country and its fiscal state are as complex as they have been described.

These fiscal extremists will learn the hard way that they're catastrophically wrong. Unfortunately, they're going to make the rest of us suffer the consequences.

That a lot of those who will suffer also happen to be those who elected these geniuses to the House is some small comfort. I only hope the blinkered masses who fell under the Tea Party's simplistic sway will come to realize that the tea is unpalatably bitter.

Don't send a dime to Smile Train

We all get junk mail. Usually I spend half a second to make sure it's junk, then into the shredder it goes. It mildly irks me that trees had to die for no good reason, but that feeling passes quickly and I move on.

And then there are the solicitations from that bunch of weasels calling itself Smile Train.

What pisses me off about this outfit is its gall. Here's the claim:
One thing that makes us different from other charities is our "one donation" invitation. Make one gift to save one child today and we will never ask for another gift again.
As the American Institute of Philanthropy wrote in an August 2010 piece entitled "Solicitation Train":
If you receive a solicitation in the mail from any charity that makes the above promise, you would be wise to be skeptical. No donor should ever feel obligated to make a contribution in order to not be solicited.
In more recent solicitations, Smile Train apparently has attempted to mute criticism of its passive-aggressive pitch by including a checkbox to be removed from its mailing list. I took it up on this offer. Back in February I asked Smile Train, politely but firmly, to drop me from its list. I then gritted my teeth and waited the ridiculous six to eight weeks it apparently takes this shady outfit to make a change to its database.

Guess whose unwelcome solicitation showed up in yesterday's mail?

In case you're wondering, yesterday was about twenty weeks after my request. This latest mailing, in other words, was no mistake. This was Smile Train's gentle hint that it doesn't give a shit what I want.

I have on occasion asked to be removed from various organizations' mailing lists. Every one of them has honored my request -- except this bunch.

If Smile Train can't be trusted to honor a simple request to stop bothering people, why should you trust it with your money?

I'll say it again: Smile Train is a bunch of weasels. Don't give it a dime.

[UPDATE: Every time Smile Train harasses me, I will verbally defecate on it. The first scat was dropped in September 2011.]

The "phone-hacking" scandal, 18 July 2011

This scandal embroils elements of the press, the Metropolitan Police, and politicians. Well, only one politician, but he's a big fish: Prime Minister David Cameron. So far, at least four high-ranking News Corporation executives (Alan Coulson, Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton, and Tom Crone, until last week News International's legal manager) and two high-ranking police officials (Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and now, as noted below, Assistant Commissioner John Yates) have resigned.

Cameron is not accused, nor does he seem likely to be accused, of criminal behavior. However, he has been extremely close to Alan Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch, largely because Murdoch's UK media interests have made him a kingmaker (or Prime Minister-maker). Cameron also is widely considered to have shown extremely poor judgment when he hired Coulson in the aftermath of the latter's resignation from News of the World over -- wait for it -- phone-hacking allegations in 2007.

All in all, Cameron seems only one or two more embarrassing revelations away from a no-confidence vote. And Stephenson's resignation statement hinted at unrevealed and potentially embarrassing revelations, in addition to doing more than hinting at Stephenson's disgruntlement with Cameron.

The press and the police have offered up their sacrifices. Might politics be next?
  • Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates has resigned. He did so shortly after being informed that "he would be suspended pending an inquiry into his relationship with Mr [Neil] Wallis," the former News of the World executive whose ties to former Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson eventually brought about Stephenson's resignation.

    The stories:
    • the BBC
    • the Guardian
    • The Guardian also has a sympathetic profile of Yates and how this seemingly admirable police official might have gone off the rails due to overconfidence in his own judgment rather than any corruption. Yates, in fact, was so honest, he had been a high-ranking anti-corruption officer.
    • the Independent
  • To quote the Independent's account: "A former News of the World reporter who blew the whistle on widespread phone hacking at the title has been found dead." The reporter was Sean Hoare, who was the first journalist willing to allege on the record that Andy Coulson knew that reporters were hacking people's mobile phones.

    According to the Hertfordshire police statement quoted in the Guardian, "The death is currently being treated as unexplained but not thought to be suspicious."

    Hoare's credibility has been questioned by some because of his history of drug and alcohol abuse. For his part, Coulson emphatically denies he condoned phone-hacking or remembered it taking place while he was editor.

    The stories:
Various publications have whole sections of their Web sites dedicated to the phone-hacking story.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The "phone-hacking" scandal, 17 July 2011

  • In spite of stiff competition from Sir Paul Stephenson, I think we must award the "I've had the worst week" award to Rebekah Brooks, who was arrested by Scotland Yard "on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications" and "on suspicion of corruption," according to a statement from the Metropolitan Police. She has been released on bail.

    Brooks is still slated to appear before a House of Commons committee on Tuesday, although commentators have pointed out that having been arrested, she might not be able to answer MPs' questions freely. That Catch-22 is starting to spawn conspiracy theories among some MPs that her arrest was a way to take the heat off both the phone-hacking and the police bribery investigations.

    The stories:
  • The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, has resigned. This comes at the end of a bad week for the Metropolitan Police, with damaging revelations coming one after another. One of the most damaging, I'd guess, was that Stephenson knew about the Met's payments for PR advising to Neil Wallis, a former News International editor implicated in the phone-hacking scandal (and arrested this past week). The knowledge itself wasn't the main problem: rather, it was the fact that Stephenson didn't share his knowledge with Prime Minister David Cameron before the information became public.

    The stories:
  • Labour leader Ed Miliband has called for the breakup of Rupert Murdoch's UK media properties, saying Murdoch has too large a share of the UK press market. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also called for greater plurality in the UK press.
  • The BBC has a good look at how News Corp.'s British travails are engendering fallout in the U.S.
    The scandal has also revealed a battle at the heart of News Corp, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, for the future of the US empire. That has exposed a corporate structure where the Murdoch family squabble among themselves but are also pitted against other factions. It is a fight that puts highly profitable TV interests against those of a declining print industry.
    The question on everyone's mind is, who will run News Corp. when Rupert Murdoch gives up the reins? Rupert's son James is no longer the favorite; many wonder if he's even still in the running.
  • The New York Times' David Carr has written what I'd call an opinion piece describing a low-profile but similarly problematic News Corp. division, News America Marketing. It should come as no surprise that Carr thinks News America and News International say something about News Corp.'s culture.
Various publications have whole sections of their Web sites dedicated to the phone-hacking story.
  • BBC
  • The Guardian
  • Not so much a section as an FAQ, courtesy of the Independent; it includes basic questions that you likely would have if you knew little but the headlines, plus a glossary of terms like "hacking" and "blagging" (a term I had never encountered before this scandal)
  • The (New York) Times Topic page

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The "phone-hacking" scandal, 15 July 2011

[Whoops, look at the date -- it's actually the 16th. Sorry about that, but I'm not rewriting.]
  • The human sacrifices have begun: Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton have resigned. Brooks ran News International, News Corporation's subsidiary that runs its British publications. Hinton was the publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

    Like the Columbia Journalism Report's Felix Salmon, I think Brooks knows where bodies are buried. According to the Independent, she and other recently departed News Corporation execs will be subject to a nondisclosure agreement as part of their severance packages, though the agreements won't cover the inquiry announced by Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday or any criminal proceedings.
  • Rupert Murdoch visited Milly Dowler's family to apologize, and took out full-page apology ads in rival newspapers.
  • Elisabeth Murdoch was scathing about Rebekah Brooks in a private conversation. This story in the Daily Telegraph is unsourced, so take it with a grain of rock salt.
Various publications have whole sections of their Web sites dedicated to the phone-hacking story.
  • BBC
  • The Guardian
  • Not so much a section as an FAQ, courtesy of the Independent; it includes basic questions that you likely would have if you knew little but the headlines, plus a glossary of terms like "hacking" and "blagging" (a term I had never encountered before this scandal)
  • The (New York) Times Topic page

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thomas Drake gets a small break

Former N.S.A. official Thomas Drake's legal woes are finally at an end, with a federal district court judge sentencing him to probation and community service. Drake also got the satisfaction of hearing Judge Richard D. Bennett take the government to task:
The visibly angry judge said that Mr. Drake had been through “four years of hell” and that the dragging out of the investigation — and then the dropping of the major charges on the eve of trial — was “unconscionable.”

“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.
I previously wrote about Drake twice: the first time was to discuss Jane Mayer's New Yorker piece where I first learned of Drake's story, and the second time was to note that the government had settled with Drake, after Judge Bennett's refusal to permit the Justice Department to withhold so-called sensitive documents at trial forced the prosecution to seek a plea.

Mayer made a compelling case for Drake as a whistleblower rather than a spy, which is how the government was trying to portray him. No news coverage I've seen has quoted anyone making anything like a reasonable argument in support of the prosecution; all the statements have leant heavily on the usual national-security claptrap. Drake was guilty of the same "crime" as Daniel Ellsberg, namely, airing embarrassing government dirty laundry in public. That's not a crime, that's a public service.

Candidate Obama claimed to be a strong proponent of whistleblowers during his presidential campaign. You'd never know it by the way his Justice Department treated Thomas Drake. Shame on you, Mr. Obama.

The "phone-hacking" scandal, 14 July 2011

Belated Happy Bastille Day. They're not quite King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks seem to have roused the same angry passions among the common folk.
  • Now you won't see them, now you will: Thursday morning, Rupert and James Murdoch declined a House of Commons committee's "polite request" to answer questions next Tuesday (19 July 2011), claiming they were unavailable but offering to appear at other times. Both men later reversed themselves and agreed to appear -- after Members of Parliament started scouring the law books for ways to clap them in irons. Actually, the Commons committee issued summonses after the Murdochs' initial refusals, and a few hours later the Murdochs suddenly announced their schedules were clear.

    The committee's work is separate from the formal inquiry Prime Minister David Cameron announced Wednesday into press regulation and the specifics of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. My limited understanding of the committee's purpose in calling the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks to testify is, it will be a wonderful opportunity for MPs to fulminate against a much-disliked media baron and his lieutenants while reporters are present.

    In previous entries on this scandal, I've written that James Murdoch holds U.S. citizenship, and speculated that British law might be hard to apply to him. It turns out he holds dual citizenship, in Britain and the U.S., so he might well be fully subject to British law.

    Here are the various accounts of the Murdochs' about-face:
  • J. Edgar's boys are testing the water: the F.B.I. has begun an "assessment" -- a prelude to an investigation, if you will -- to look into whether News Corporation journalists tried to find 11 September 2001 attack victims' phone numbers. I suppose the F.B.I. can't ignore a direct request from a member of Congress, namely, Rep. Peter King (R-NY). However, I hope not too much time and money are spent on this assessment for the nonce, since the only evidence adduced so far is an anonymously sourced account in a British tabloid published by a competitor of News International.

    Here are the various accounts of the F.B.I. pre-investigation:
  • Another former News of the World editor, Neil Wallis, was arrested "on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications," according to one of the Guardian's articles on the subject. In an embarrassing turn of events, it was revealed that Wallis was paid as a public-relations advisor to the Metropolitan Police (the "Met") "during a period when the Yard rejected calls for the reopening of a criminal investigation into the interception of voicemails," according to another Guardian article.

    Read all the linked articles: each paper throws in different, wonderful details.
  • Rupert Murdoch took to a friendly forum to defend himself and News Corp.: the Wall Street Journal, which you might remember is owned by News Corp.

    Here be the articles:
Various publications have whole sections of their Web sites dedicated to the phone-hacking story.
  • BBC
  • The Guardian
  • Not so much a section as an FAQ, courtesy of the Independent; it includes basic questions that you likely would have if you knew little but the headlines, plus a glossary of terms like "hacking" and "blagging" (a term I had never encountered before this scandal)
  • The (New York) Times Topic page

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Anti-SVU rant

Time for a quick break from Rupert Murdoch's woes.

This year's Emmy nominations are out, and as Mike Hale put it in the New York Times, the Best Actress category once again contains "one of the biggest Emmy mysteries: the Mariska Hargitay Perpetual Nomination, now in its seventh year."

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit started out with such promise. For one thing, it wasn't Law and Order, which was starting to look a little threadbare. For another, it kept one of my favorite characters alive: John Munch, from the acclaimed but low-rated Homicide: Life on the Street.

Then I watched it.

I gave it three seasons, more or less, before realizing it was a gigantic waste of my time. (I'm either terribly forgiving or a slow learner.) Why have its leads, Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, been acclaimed for their work on this show? Their overblown hystrionics are totally unconvincing. When Hargitay plays tough, I wince with embarrassment for her. Meloni similarly plays streetwise so badly, it hurts.

Perhaps it's not their fault, though. They could well be decent actors trapped by bad scripts. It certainly seems as if for Dick Wolf's writers, anger is the only emotion and subtlety is merely an unfamiliar word in the dictionary. That, at least, is how I explain SVU's biggest crime: the emasculation of the character of John Munch.

Munch was never the standout detective on Homicide, but considering the company he kept, that was no disgrace. He had his annoying traits, but so did they all: Pembleton his arrogance, Bayliss his tortured uncertainty, Lewis his hypersensitive suspiciousness, Bolander his weary impatience with his younger colleagues, and so on. Munch held his own among them, the dents in his personal armor as distinctive as, and no more or less honorable than, his fellow detectives'. The fraught relations between them were well-earned and believable, their rare moments of camaraderie genuinely touching.

After crossing over to SVU, Munch initially was the annoying jester to Benson and Stabler's shining knights, accorded little respect and treated as backup. The producers disavowed his Baltimore roots, allowing the writers to destroy the character's continuity and to recast him as a born-and-bred New Yorker whose time in Charm City was, at best, a distasteful memory. In an infamous rant, he denigrated his former squad as a bunch of "mental midgets."

Eventually he was reduced to a joyless zombie, his brooding cynicism a superficial affect to distinguish him from his cohorts. His standout episodes -- of which I can remember only two during those first few seasons -- made him as mawkishly sentimental and as prone to angry outbursts as any of his cohorts, too. Munch had become one of Dick Wolf's shadow puppets.

Why does playing one of these puppets keep getting some of these actors nominated for awards?

The "phone-hacking" scandal, 13 July 2011

Today's illegal voicemail-access news in Britain was dominated by two big developments: the specifics of Prime Minister David Cameron's call for an inquiry into the matter, which Cameron previously had made known he would seek, and the withdrawal of News Corporation's bid for the British Sky Broadcasting Group, aka BSkyB. There were also more calls in the U.S. for investigations into News Corp., but to inject my own opinion, not one of those calls is backed by any specific evidence of wrongdoing -- yet.
  • Prime Minister Cameron's inquiry will have two parts. The first will "investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the press, its relationship with police and the failure of the current system of press self-regulation," according to the Daily Mail. The second will look into "what went wrong at the News of the World and possibly other papers." The inquiry will be headed by Lord Justice (Sir Brian) Leveson, "a respected senior judge" according to the Guardian's profile of Lord Justice Leveson.

    The reason for the divided inquiry is to prevent information about News of the World or other specific papers from prejudicing or otherwise affecting the ongoing criminal investigations and any prosecutions that might arise out of the investigations. I'm certainly not the only one, though, who thinks that the broad and not entirely well-defined charter of the first part of the inquiry is just as likely to produce information that might adversely affect the investigations.

    The inquiry will have the power to summon witnesses to testify under oath and in public. While those who are not British citizens, like Rupert and James Murdoch, cannot be compelled to appear, if they refused to do so, they "would have to avoid setting foot in the UK for the duration of the inquiry or risk being found in contempt of court," according to unnamed "Whitehall sources" cited by the Daily Mail.

    The Guardian has more details about the proposed inquiry in its account. The BBC account is skimpier on details about the inquiry but assembles links to a number of other, smaller developments which I'll be ignoring here in the interest of getting some sleep tonight.
  • Not much to say about News Corp.'s dropped BSkyB bid: here's the BBC article, here's the Guardian account.

    No one knows whether News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch will make another play for BSkyB down the line, after public anger has diminished. The Guardian, though, cited unnamed "company insiders" who claimed that "Murdoch was not making a tactical retreat and that a future bid for total control of BSkyB was now unlikely." News Corp. might even have to give up its existing 39% stake in BSkyB if Ofcom deems it not to be a "fit and proper" owner. No one knows how likely such a determination is.

    According to the BBC article, some are calling for James Murdoch, Rupert's son, to resign as chairman of the BSkyB board.
  • Though not formally part of Prime Minister Cameron's description of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry, these remarks of the Prime Minister have gotten a lot of attention in the UK press:
    The people involved, whether they were directly responsible for the wrongdoing, sanctioned it, or covered it up, however high or low they go, must not only be brought to justice they must also have no future role in the running of a media company in our country.
    The Guardian has provided the full text of the Prime Minister's remarks.
  • Last night it was only Sen. Jay Rockefeller calling for U.S. government investigations into whether News Corp.'s alleged bad actions in Britain might have been reproduced here. Today, it's Peter King (R-NY), asking
    the F.B.I. to investigate whether journalists working for News Corporation newspapers tried to obtain phone records of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as one British newspaper claimed, citing anonymous sources.
    Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have asked the Justice Department to investigate; Lautenberg suggested that the Securities and Exchange Commission should look into the matter as well. As far as I can tell, both senators were motivated by the same anonymous account as King.

    Now, I'm as ready to believe the worst of tabloid reporters as the next, but it seems to me the atmosphere is getting all too conducive to the making and spreading of false allegations. Do I think it's possible such attempts were made? Of course. On the other hand, a lot of things are possible. You have to apply some logic and assess risk versus reward before you send F.B.I. agents off to chase down a possibility.

    Illegally acquiring phone records would be a violation of people's privacy, and a ghoulish one at that if the records belonged to dead people. Obviously, given what we know of how such information was used by British private investigators and their press employers, such violations have the potential to be quite serious.

    However, is the possibility of finding such serious violations as important as keeping watch on homegrown fanatics who might be looking to make deadly political statements to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks?

    Given the reality that the F.B.I. already can't do everything we collectively want it to do (any more than it could on 10 September 2001, I remind you with sadness), adding a new task would mean that the Bureau would have to cut back or to give up entirely on something it's already doing.

    Does the "evidence" on the table, an anonymous account in a British paper, warrant the F.B.I. switching its priorities? In my opinion, not yet. An investigation probably will be in order at some point, but until we see something more concrete, I'd say the Bureau has better things to do. (And yes, I've considered that the culprits will have extra time with which to cover their tracks.)

    On a lighter note, Sen. Lautenberg brought up the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the U.S. law that allows the federal government to prosecute U.S.-based corporations for bribery overseas. The alleged bribery of London police officers might violate the FCPA.
    Citing the act’s accounting rules, he added, “If indeed bribes were made and were not properly recorded, this too may be a violation of law.”
    If the bribes "were not properly recorded"? There are accounting rules for bribes?
  • The Wall Street Journal claims that Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. advisors have considered selling News International, thus shedding all his British newspapers. The article is behind a paywall so I have no other details.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Some unsolicited advice to my readers

At the risk of grossly overestimating my audience by assuming it consists of more than myself, I would like to give my readers some unsolicited advice.

Enough with the Jay Maisel entry. The rest of the Web has beaten the topic to death (though I hope no one has tried to do the same to Maisel).

Instead, check out the News International phone-hacking stories. The first gives an overview, while the second follows up on recent developments. Conveniently enough, you don't even need to follow the links if you don't want to: just scroll down.

I labored a hell of a lot more on those entries than on anything else in this blog. (Well, almost anything else ... but I don't want to distract you.) Read them. Read the linked articles, too, if you have time. It's an avalanche of a story that threatens to overwhelm one of the biggest, most powerful media barons of our time.

The "phone-hacking" scandal continues

The developments in the News International "phone hacking" scandal are flying thick and fast.
  • The Guardian reports that Prime Minister David Cameron "will announce on Wednesday that a judge will oversee a full-blown inquiry into the background to phone hacking and a panel that will examine media regulation." Nicholas Watt's article gives a fascinating look at the moment-by-moment politicking that led to the rare agreement across party lines in support of the inquiry.
  • The Guardian reported that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was "targeted" by News International publications, including the Sunday Times and the Sun. The extent of the efforts to obtain personal information on Brown and his family is extraordinary. His bank account, legal file, family medical records, and tax paperwork apparently were accessed. There is even evidence that a serving police officer accessed the police national computer looking for information on Brown.

    Let's get specific about the "family medical records" so as to convey how appalling this behavior was. When the Browns' first child was born, only a small group of doctors and nurses knew she was dying of a brain hemorrhage. Nevertheless, the information got out to "news organizations" (the Guardian does not say which ones) and was published the weekend before she died.

    I don't know whether it was a News International paper that ran this story. I've heard, and I believe, that News International's competitors used similar tactics to get scoops. It doesn't matter to me whether a Murdoch tabloid was back of this story or not. Here's the bottom line as far as I'm concerned:

    No public interest was served by running that story. To violate the family's privacy in this way was indefensible and unspeakably vile.

    For its part, News International "denied criticism of its journalistic methods", claiming it used entirely lawful means to obtain information about Brown and his family. In particular, a Sun spokesman claimed the paper got word of Brown's son having cystic fibrosis (a story separate from the aforementioned one about the Brown's infant daughter) without ever seeing the boy's medical records.
    [The Sun spokesman said,] "The story The Sun ran about their son originated from a member of the public whose family has also experienced cystic fibrosis.

    "He came to The Sun with this information voluntarily because he wanted to highlight the cause of those afflicted by the disease. The individual has provided a written affidavit this afternoon to a lawyer confirming this."

    The newspaper said it had contacted "colleagues" of Mr Brown before publishing the story and that they had given a reaction which "indicated his consent" to it.
    Assuming News International hasn't found someone willing to commit perjury, an affidavit would seem to rule out violation of medical records. Contacting "colleagues" to obtain a secondhand "consent" from Brown to run the story, however, sounds distinctly less believable and more likely to be a(nother) lie.
  • News Corp.'s proposed acquisition of broadcaster BSkyB is on hold for at least a few months, the bid having been referred to the UK's Competition Commission by the UK's Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Hunt had been widely criticized for letting the bid slide through without much questioning, presumably with the encouragement of Prime Minister David Cameron. However, Hunt did not unilaterally decide to refer the bid: rather, his hand was forced when News Corp. elected not to take a step required for its original bid to be approved (namely, to spin off Sky News).
  • The Murdochs, Rupert and his son James, along with former editor Rebekah Brooks, have been invited to appear before a Parliamentary committee next week, on Tuesday.
    Tom Watson - a Labour member of the committee who has led a campaign against phone hacking - told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "We want to ask Rebekah Brooks about her knowledge of payments to the police, we'd like to ask James Murdoch about how he authorised payments to silences [sic] Gordon Taylor and I think we'd like to ask Rupert Murdoch, he might be the most powerful media oligarch on the planet, I think he owes Mr and Mrs Dowler an apology."

    Mr Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, received an out-of-court settlement over claims his phone was hacked in April 2008. James Murdoch said last week he regretted having approved out-of-court settlements when he did not have "a complete picture".

    He also said the paper had "made statements to Parliament without being in the full possession of the facts".
    The invitation is apparently not a legal summons from the Culture, Media and Sport committee, but rather a "polite request." It's unknown whether any of the three will accept, though Rupert Murdoch is in the UK to take charge of the News International crisis. As a British citizen, Brooks can be compelled to appear; it's not clear whether the same holds true for the Murdochs, who are U.S. citizens.

    During an appearance before the same committee in 2003, while editor of the News International paper the Sun, Brooks told members, "We have paid the police for information in the past." While I doubt any such bombshell will be dropped this time (I'm sure she'll be surrounded by News Corp. lawyers and PR flacks), hope springs eternal.
  • The Metropolitan Police have accused News International of thwarting the initial police investigation into illegal voicemail access accusations against News of the World. That initial investigation started in 2005, but:
    Ex-Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke said there was "prevarication and what we now know to be lies".

    Assistant Commissioner John Yates said the firm [News International] "appears to have failed to co-operate" during his review of the case.
    According to the Guardian, members of Parliament "derided the evidence" Yates provided. Committee chair Keith Vaz said he and his fellow committee members found Yates' testimony "unconvincing." It must be admitted that Yates had a lot to explain:
    ... Yates, first to appear before MPs, was under huge pressure to explain why, in July 2009, after the Guardian alleged there were thousands more victims of the illegal practice, he did not order a fresh investigation after being asked to review the case by the Met[ropolitan Police] commissioner.

    Yates, once strongly tipped as a future commissioner himself, admitted his examination of the case was limited to talking to the original senior investigating officer – and reviewing legal advice.
    And it must be admitted that Yates didn't have a great explanation.

    It's worth remembering that the police have barely started the related investigation into bribes paid by News International to police officers. In other words, police heads will probably roll even if Clarke and Yates are right about News International's misdeeds.
  • The BBC's Robert Peston reported that a member of the Royal Protection Service was paid "for the contact details of senior members of the royal family, their friends and their relations." The evidence is in one of the News of the World emails found by News International in 2007 but only turned over to police on 20 June 2011.

    Peston's motives have been called into question by the Daily Mail. Michael Seamark's article claims:
    Media commentators have highlighted the close personal and formerly professional relationship between Mr Peston and Will Lewis, the very senior News International troubleshooter, amid suggestions that the BBC man is being used by the Murdoch machine.
    The article goes on to list other Peston-Murdoch connections, including an appearance by Peston at a party hosted by Elisabeth Murdoch (Rupert Murdoch's daughter) and her husband at the beginning of July at which Peston "was huddled together with Rebekah Brooks, his friend Mr Lewis, and their boss James Murdoch for a good part of the evening."

    Seamark's article is gossipy by American standards but makes some interesting points. A list of Peston "scoops" and their impact shows a trend toward making Andy Coulson the focus of scrutiny, with a secondary effect being to let targets of police interest know in advance.

    The Independent's Ian Burrell also wrote a piece along roughly the same lines, though with different details and a more serious tone. Burrell's article provides more context about the BBC's sometimes fractious relationship with News Corp. Burrell also notes that Peston's manager, Jeremy Hillman, stands behind him.

    Peston could indeed be in cahoots with News Corp., or he could be naive about the side effects of his scoops, or his critics could be totally off base. I can't tell.
  • From the "sauce for the goose" department, the New York Times reports:
    Shortly after Scotland Yard began its initial criminal inquiry of phone hacking by The News of the World in 2006, five senior police investigators discovered that their own cellphone messages had been targeted by the tabloid and had most likely been listened to.
    It's not a nice revelation, but at this point it's hardly a surprising one.

    That piece, by the way, dovetails nicely with another NYT article, "Cozy Ties Mark Newspaper’s Dealings With Scotland Yard".
  • Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has issued a statement on the phone-hacking scandal in his capacity as chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee. The statement is short, merely encouraging "the appropriate agencies to investigate to ensure that Americans have not had their privacy violated." As a couple of British reports have noted, Rockefeller doesn't claim to have any information that such violations have occurred in the U.S. That makes it unlikely that any federal agency is going to step up in response.

    I suppose it's good news that somebody in D.C. is upset by the scandal, but I'd say Americans' privacy is at far greater risk from the N.S.A.'s extensive and unsupervised domestic intelligence-gathering and the T.S.A.'s extensive and seemingly unsupervised baggage and passenger inspection activities, all in the name of counterterrorism. I would bet News Corp.'s spying is relatively restrained by comparison, and isn't that a sad commentary on our nation?
  • Some News Corp. shareholders are weighing in and they're not happy, according to The Guardian.
    The shareholder group, which includes banks and pension funds, accused Murdoch of "rampant nepotism" and using News Corp resources for "his own personal and political objectives".

    The institutional shareholders, led by the Amalgamated Bank, said it was "inconceivable" that Murdoch would not have been aware of rampant phone hacking at the News of the World.
    The protesting shareholders accuse the News Corp. board of lacking the independence needed to provide proper oversight of the company, due in no small part to Rupert Murdoch's habit of nominating family members to the board. This specific protest is part of a lawsuit objecting to his daughter Elisabeth's appointment to the board after News Corp. acquired her production company, Shine Group.

    For perspective, a Daily Mail article claims:
    More than £4.3billion has been wiped off the value of the company [News Corp.] since last week due to fears that fallout from the phone-hacking investigation at News International will infect other parts of Mr Murdoch’s business.
  • The BBC's Paul Mason thinks "the network" (of social media and non-Murdoch-controlled press outlets) has defeated "the hierarchy" (of the tightly controlled Murdoch press empire). Mason's opinion piece is less convincing on rereading, but he makes some good points about the chimerical power of the media. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian similarly argues that the power of the press is overrated by politicians: "Research has shown the political power of newspapers to be grossly exaggerated, a bluff perpetrated by editors and accepted only by timid politicians." Jenkins, though, thinks "politicians will cringe again," as they have after past media overreaching.
  • David Carr's observations are in a "Media Equation" column, "A Tabloid Shame, Exposed by Earnest Rivals". His take is a trifle optimistic, which is surprising for Carr.
    In truth, a kind of British Spring is under way, now that the News Corporation’s tidy system of punishment and reward has crumbled.
    It's a trifle early to draw the moral, especially when the 9,000 lb. elephant in the room -- the British public's appetite for what the News of the World dished up, week after week -- appears unchanged. The audience always deserves a lot of blame in scandals like this one.
Various publications have whole sections of their Web sites dedicated to the phone-hacking story.
  • BBC
  • The Guardian
  • Not so much a section as an FAQ, courtesy of the Independent; it includes basic questions that you likely would have if you knew little but the headlines, plus a glossary of terms like "hacking" and "blagging" (a term I had never encountered before this scandal)
  • The (New York) Times Topic page

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The News International "phone-hacking" scandal

In the previous entry I took for granted that you had heard of the news roiling Britain's journalism industry. However, since the story is still breaking (both here and in the UK) and you might not be aware of it, here's an overview: the News International (and thus Rupert Murdoch)-owned British newspaper News of the World employed a private investigator who broke into the voicemail storage of Milly Dowler, a schoolgirl who had gone missing, in 2002. Even worse, the break-in allowed journalists to delete some of the messages, giving everyone the false impression the girl was still alive at the time. (She later was found to have been murdered.)

The story is dreadful enough on its own terms, but what makes it even more compelling to a wide swath of Britons is that the disclosure of the Milly Dowler incident is an outgrowth of a larger police investigation into the paper's history of voicemail-hacking, an illegal activity that has resulted in juicy celebrity gossip and thus higher circulation numbers. Most assumed the tactic was limited to the message boxes of celebrities and politicians (and there's a curious acceptance by the British public of the activity when directed against the popular, rich and famous). However, the revelation that ordinary folks at the center of a news story could be similarly intruded upon aroused significant public anger.

Nor is it just the News of the World and Murdoch's empire that are in hot water. Scotland Yard is accused of being unenthusiastic about investigating the News of the World's illegal voicemail access because some of its officers had accepted payments from News International for information. The current investigations (there are two, Operation Weeting and Operation Elveden, the first focusing on the illegal voicemail access and the second on police corruption arising from the News International payments) are the result of enormous political pressure brought to bear on the police by politicians and the public -- pressure arising from stories published by, among others, the Guardian (UK), Channel 4 (UK), and the New York Times.

The story also is a large headache for Prime Minister David Cameron. He had already been criticized for appointing a former News International editor, Andy Coulson, as the Conservative Party's communications chief. Cameron made the appointment in 2007, shortly after Coulson had resigned from News International in the initial wake of the illegal voicemail-access scandal. (At first, the illegal access was thought to have been limited to only a few high-profile subjects, including the royal family.) Cameron's perceived closeness to Murdoch and his media empire, a perception based on more than Coulson's appointment but hardly helped by it, is now an enormous liability as all of Murdoch's media rivals have turned up the heat on the Dowler story.

Finally, what galls a lot of people, especially in the wake of the shutdown of News of the World, is that no one terribly high up in the News International or News Corporation hierarchy has been held responsible. Most criticism has focused on Rebekah Brooks, the current News International CEO who was the News of the World's editor at the time of the illegal voicemail access under investigation, in 2002. (Coulson was her deputy at the paper.) Most observers believe she had to have known about and approved of the illegal voicemail access; however, she denies this. To all appearances, Brooks still retains Rupert Murdoch's confidence.

The story is gossipy in some respects, but it's important because Murdoch's News International owns so many of the UK's major newspapers (including the storied Times of London) and is poised to snap up the part of satellite broadcaster BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting Group) that it doesn't already own. Indeed, the all-but-done deal is now endangered by the News of the World scandal. News International's newspaper rivals, meanwhile, are using the story to press for increased scrutiny of News International, which they hope will lead to public pressure to rein it (and Rupert Murdoch) in.

I distilled this information from a number of articles I've read about the story. My interest was piqued by a Guardian article I read a few months ago about the apparent police misconduct surrounding the "phone hacking" investigation. Unfortunately, I decided not to blog about the article so I can't provide a link to it. However, by way of compensation, I have plenty of links now.
  • An article in The Independent lays out the News International and News Corporation personnel at the center of this scandal, from Rupert Murdoch on down. It's a handy reference piece in case the names start to blur.
  • The Guardian first broke the Milly Dowler voicemail-hacking story on 4 July 2011. In it we get an explanation for why some of the voicemails for the girl were deleted:
    The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly's disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive. Police feared evidence may have been destroyed.
    Flabbergasting, and this is only one revelation. Read this article to understand why Britons are up in arms. Some believe that this story convinced James Murdoch to take the drastic step of closing News of the World; see a Guardian analysis of NOTW's closure for more details.
  • With regard to the NOTW's closing, The Independent describes Rebekah Brooks' visit to the NOTW to explain the shutdown. To say her reception was frosty would be an understatement.
    A NOTW staff member told The Independent that Ms Brooks dodged difficult questions: "She said: 'I am not going to resign because these are unproven allegations,' to which someone replied: 'Well, you closed the paper down over these unproven allegations.'"
    Not easy to skirt the charge that you covered your own ass by cutting loose 200 others', is it, Ms. Brooks?

    Roy Greenslade in The Guardian, meanwhile, reminded his readers not to get too sentimental about the NOTW's demise.
    I know some of the staff. And I know many of them are not guilty of any wrong-doing. However, it's a bit rich to claim integrity while working for a paper that has engaged in the dark arts – entrapment, subterfuge, covert filming, the use of agents provocateur and phone hacking – for the best part of 20 years.
    Greenslade cites several instances of "post-2006 iniquities" that flat-out contradict News International's "party line that hacking was confined to 'a few years up to 2006' and involved just 'some' of the staff."
  • The Independent has a piece about the possible scuttling by regulators of News Corporation's bid for BSkyB. The "independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries," Ofcom, wants to be kept informed of developments in the police investigation and parliamentary committees. This is hardly the kiss of death for the deal, but it's an obstacle News Corp. would not have anticipated -- until last week, anyway. (Closing News of the World is seen by some as a News Corp. preemptive strike to placate Ofcom.)

    That all said, an opinion piece in The Independent notes:
    In January, Ofcom recommended that the BSkyB bid should be referred to the Competition Commission. But the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, decided to allow the company to avoid this referral in return for an agreement to sell off Sky News. It is inconceivable that any other organisation would have been offered such regulatory leeway.
    Considering the extremely negative publicity about the Prime Minister's cozy relations with News International, it seems unlikely Cameron's government would interfere further with the regulatory approval process for BSkyB's acquisition. Nevertheless, as the opinion piece shows, such interference would not be unprecedented.
  • Another contributing factor to NOTW's shutdown was probably pull-outs by major advertisers, like Ford, as The Independent reported. People were already calling for a boycott of NOTW advertisers, and I can't imagine a significant number of companies would have risked a public-relations firestorm by sticking with the paper. There is no way for a newspaper to survive without advertisers, so NOTW's future was in serious jeopardy anyway.
  • A 2010 Guardian article documents an earlier stage of the police investigation into illegal voicemail access. The article says that the Metropolitan Police asked "for any new material the paper holds about phone hacking at the News of the World." The article is no longer current, of course; the reason to read the piece is for the glee the paper shows at leading, not following, the police.
    "The fact that three separate news organisations have been able to uncover this story must give you hope that you, too, could got to the bottom of it without too much trouble," [Guardian editor-in-chief Alan] Rusbridger told [Detective Superintendent Dean] Haydon.
    Rusbridger's letter to Haydon is sarcastic, even condescending in spots. In light of the police's mishandling of the initial investigation into the illegal voicemail access, perhaps Rusbridger's attitude is justifiable.
  • Speaking of that initial investigation, The Independent says that the Times of London, owned by News International,
    ... will continue to employ the services of Andy Hayman the former senior police officer who led Scotland Yard's original investigation of phone hacking by the News of the World and concluded that there were "perhaps a handful of victims".
    "Scotland Yard has since confirmed that more than 4,000 people may have had their phones hacked." That's quite a discrepancy, Mr. Hayman. (The Daily Mail wrote earlier this year that among those whose phones may have been hacked was a police official. How ironic.)

    The man who led the apparently mishandled investigation will continue to be employed by an arm of News International. Imagine that.
  • The Independent reported on Andy Coulson's arrest, which took place Friday morning. The police "arrested [Coulson] by appointment at Lewisham in south London on suspicion of conspiracy to hack voicemails and making corrupt payments to police officers." The article says that News of the World "paid serving police officers around £100,000" between 2003 and 2007, during Coulson's tenure at the paper. Earlier that same morning, the police arrested former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman. Goodman already served time for illegally accessing the voicemail of Prince William; the new charge against Goodman is for corrupting police officers.
  • As for the evidence of payoffs to police, The Guardian reports that News International memos seemingly "acknowledge that the practice of phone hacking was more widespread than previously thought and that police were paid for helping with stories." The Guardian's article is tendentious in spots, but cites a BBC story on the matter which appears to be more restrained and impartial. The BBC story says that the memos -- or rather, as the BBC makes clear, emails -- were found in the custody of a firm of solicitors, Harbottle & Lewis, who had been retained by News International to investigate "whether the illegal actions of Clive Goodman - the News of the World's former royal editor, jailed in 2007 for phone hacking - were known to his News of the World colleagues." Harbottle & Lewis apparently did not address the question of whether anyone other than Goodman actually participated in voicemail hacking.
    However, when William Lewis and his fellow News International executives re-acquired those e-mails from Harbottle & Lewis, they found what they perceived to be prima facie evidence that the illegal phone hacking went wider than just the activities of Mr Goodman and that there were potentially illegal payments to the police.
    Lewis is general manager of News International; according to the BBC, he "is in charge of News International's clean-up of what went wrong at the News of the World." Essentially, Lewis seems to be in charge of conducting a proper internal investigation, which Harbottle & Lewis increasingly appears not to have done. The obvious inference is that News Corporation sees the writing on the wall and hopes to limit the damage to its reputation by preemptively airing as much of its dirty laundry as possible. Whether this openness will extend to any evidence that implicates either James or Rupert Murdoch, who can say?
  • Speaking of evidence, The Independent claims that an unidentified "senior executive" at News International "tried to delete millions of messages that may have included information about the phone-hacking scandal." The article is short on specifics but does include one curious detail:
    The Information Commissioner's Office said last month it had closed an investigation into claims that emails had been sent to India and accepted assurances from NI that its archive was intact.
    Why, after all the shenanigans in which News International is suspected of engaging, would anyone "accept assurances" from the organization about anything?
  • The Independent has a good analysis of the relationship between David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch. It's also a good summary of the tangential Murdoch empire interests that are threatened by this scandal, including the BSkyB acquisition and the reputation of The Wall Street Journal, which currently is headed by Les Hinton. Hinton was News International's executive chairman during the time the illegal voicemail access was ongoing at the News of the World and "was also in overall charge of the first internal investigation into phone hacking," according to the aforementioned list of News Corp. personnel in The Independent. Hinton is suspected either to have botched or to have deliberately whitewashed that first investigation. (See also a Guardian piece giving further details of Hinton's involvement when he was News International's executive chairman.)

    The aforementioned Independent analysis also claims:
    In fresh developments yesterday, Mr [Andy] Coulson made clear he was standing by his story and would not be made a scapegoat in the crisis. Mrs [Rebekah] Brooks also stood her ground by telling a committee of MPs that she had "no knowledge whatsoever of phone-hacking" during her tenure as editor of the News of the World.

    Mr Coulson is understood to be "steaming" with rage that he has been left swinging by News International, specifically by Ms Brooks. When he discovered early last week that emails over police payments had been handed to detectives, he tried to call her – but she failed to respond promptly. While it is not known if she called back later, the failure to pick up the phone straight away to her long-standing friend has caused a potentially explosive rift between two of the power-players at the heart of the crisis.
    What's the old saying, about rats on a sinking ship turning on one another?

    The Independent also is flogging the idea that
    ... senior executives could face criminal charges in the US and the UK. Legal experts say that Les Hinton, the publisher of the WSJ, and James Murdoch could potentially face charges under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or the UK's Regulation of Investigative Practices Act (RIPA). The US law means executives can be held to account for bribes paid by overseas subsidiaries, while the RIPA makes company officials liable regardless of their direct role in unlawful practices. "Under RIPA, ignorance of what was going on is not a defence," said a legal source.
    While Hinton probably would sleep easier if a Fox News-beholden Republican were in the White House, Obama's Justice Department has shown little appetite for taking on what could be construed as partisan investigations. Unless British press and police investigations unearth concrete evidence of high-level News International or News Corp. involvement in either the phone-hacking or police-payoff scandals, neither Hinton nor James Murdoch is likely to face FCPA-based charges.
  • In the immediate aftermath of The Guardian's revelations about the illegal access to Milly Dowler's voicemail, and prior to developments like the shuttering of the NOTW and the arrests of Andy Coulson and Clive Goodman, The Independent ran a profile of Rebekah Brooks and her apparently unshakeable bond with Rupert Murdoch.
  • The Independent has a sort of FAQ on what developments are likely in the immediate future.
  • I've cited a lot of work from The Independent, but I have more respect for the reporting from The Guardian. An analysis entitled, "Phone-hacking scandal: is this the tipping point for Murdoch's empire?", for instance, is a history of how the unsavory journalistic practices at the News of the World came to be, a look at still-unanswered questions (how did private investigators hired by newspapers find the cellphone numbers of people of interest, for instance?), and a warning that the scandal will envelop other newspapers (possibly including some not owned by News International). The article notes that there is speculation (by whom, is unknown) that the same cellphone voicemail access tactic might have been used in the U.S. If true, this would open up additional possibilities for criminal prosecution that might not be entirely at the discretion of the discreet-to-a-fault U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

    The article covers a lot of ground, and even though a lot of what it discusses is pure speculation, it's terrific food for thought.
  • The Spectator's Peter Oborne opines that the British press as a whole ignored the crisis, to its shame, with the sole exception of The Guardian.
    By minimising these stories, media groups are coming dangerously close to making a very significant statement: they are essentially part of the same bent system as News International and complicit in its criminality. At heart this is a story about the failure of the British system, which relies on a series of checks and balances to prevent high-level corruption. Each one of them has failed: parliament because MPs [Members of Parliament] feel intimidated by the power of newspapers to expose and destroy them; and opposition, because Ed Miliband lacked the moral imagination to escape the News International mindset — until he was forced to confront it all by the sheer horror of the Milly Dowler episode.
    Be it remembered that Ed Miliband is the robot politico who gave essentially the same answer six times in the course of an interview.

    On the subject of ignoring this story, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a feature article in its May/June 2011 issue by Archie Bland, a writer for The Independent. The piece, a long analysis of the British press's failure to acknowledge the phone-hacking story until recently, was republished by CJR in light of the NOTW shutdown. Bland ties together much of the history I've been trying to summarize in a very readable way, and provides a lot of context that's missing from the other articles I've cited.
  • CJR also has put forth the most compelling speculation I've seen as to why Rupert Murdoch is standing so firmly behind Rebekah Brooks. In an article entitled, "What Damage Could Rebekah Brooks Do to News Corp.?", Felix Salmon writes:
    One thing that’s undeniably true about the troika of Les Hinton, Rebekah Brooks, and James Murdoch — and Rupert Murdoch himself, for that matter — is that all of them are extremely smart and capable executives. I personally believe that all of them knew about the hacking and the bribery — and it’s also fair to assume that if Hinton or Brooks were fired and decided to tell everything to the police, they could do enough damage to the Murdochs that News Corp. might easily be declared not fit and proper to own a media company in the UK. (There is some precedent for former Murdoch editors telling expensive tales out of school; think of Judith Regan.)
    Salmon's conclusion: "it’s easy to see one reason why Rebekah Brooks might still have her job: News wants her on the inside, working for them, rather than on the outside, turning witness against them. And the same goes for Les Hinton, too."
The Guardian has an entire section of its Web site dedicated to the unfolding scandal.

This story is still being unraveled, and it promises to be explosive.

[UPDATE: Nowhere did I explain that News International is "a British newspaper publisher owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation," according to Wikipedia.]

[UPDATE: Another significant contributor to public anger over the illegal voicemail-access tactic were revelations that families of terrorist attack victims and dead soldiers might have been phone-hacking targets. A 5 July 2011 Daily Telegraph article alleged that the names or phone numbers of families of victims of the 7 July 2005 London subway bombings had come up as part of the ongoing illegal voicemail access investigation. Two days later, the Daily Telegraph reported that "the personal details of the families of servicemen who died on the front line have been found in the files of Glenn Mulcaire, the private detective working for the Sunday tabloid [News of the World]."]