NEW YORK – During the four decades since the Watergate affair engulfed US President Richard Nixon, politicians have repeatedly ignored the scandal’s main lesson: the cover-up is worse than the crime. Like Nixon, they have paid a higher price for concealing their misdeeds than they would have for the misdeeds alone.
Now, for once, comes a scandal that breaks that rule: the United Kingdom’s phone-hacking affair, which has shaken British politics to its foundations. Over the past decade, the tabloid newspaper The News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, targeted 4,000 people’s voicemail. The list includes not only royalty, celebrities, and other VIPs, but also the families of servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those of victims of the July 2005 terrorist attack in London.
It all unraveled when The Guardian reported that the tabloid had hacked into the voicemail of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler, apparently in the hope of obtaining some private expressions of family members’ grief or desperation that it could splash on its front page. When the girl’s murdered body was found six months later, the family and the police thought she might still be alive, because The News of the World’s operatives were deleting messages when her phone’s mailbox became full. (According to Scotland Yard, Murdoch hacks reportedly bribed mid-level police officers to supply information as well.)
In the extensive annals of eavesdropping, all of this is something new. Not even Stalin wiretapped the dead.