LONDON, United Kingdom — Last week it was a crisis of decency. This week, the News of the World scandal is a crisis of national security.
Late yesterday it became clear that a full-scale assault on the privacy of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was under way for almost a decade during Labour's time in office. The trawl for private data was not confined to the News of the World. At least two other Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers, The Sun and The Sunday Times, have been accused of participating.
Nor was phone hacking the only means for obtaining info. Actors and fraudsters made calls to collect confidential info on Brown including tax records, legal files and family medical records.
And if you consider that the Royal Family is not just for show — but fulfills a real constitutional function — then the news that a senior policeman on the Royal Protection squad was selling personal data about Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall adds to the idea that this scandal now is about how government functions when it is being "hacked."
The Brown case demonstrates just how far News International, the Rupert-Murdoch owned company whose newspapers account for 40 percent of the total newspaper circulation in Britain, was willing to go to get dirt on the Labour leader.
In an interview with the BBC today Brown claimed, "I had my bank account broken into. I had my legal files effectively broken into. My tax returns went missing at one point. Medical records were broken into." All of the data searched is protected by privacy laws — obtaining it without permission is illegal.
The former prime minister then alleged, "I do know that in two instances there is absolute proof that News International hired people to do this and the people who are doing this are criminals, known criminals in some cases with records of violence and fraud."
The prying into Brown's personal files began as early as 2000 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and oversaw most of the Labour government's domestic agenda. His phone wasn't hacked. Instead, it is reported, a con-man was hired by The Sunday Times to "blag" the information through subterfuge.
Perhaps the worst example came when medical records concerning his older son, Fraser, were obtained by The Sun, edited at the time by News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks. Brown and his wife, Sarah, wanted to keep the news that Fraser had cystic fibrosis private. A gentleman's agreement had shielded his predecessor Tony Blair's children from press scrutiny. The Browns hoped for the same space. Instead, Brooks let him know The Sun had found out about Fraser's condition and was going to publish something about it.
Given their earlier loss of their first-born child and natural desire for privacy, The Sun's threat was devastating to the couple. In recounting the story to the BBC today, Brown appeared close to tears. He also implied that only illegal means could have been used to obtain the news of Fraser's condition.
Brown suggested the reason for News International's assault on his privacy was, "We stood up to News International and refused to support their commercial ambitions when we thought they were against the public interest."
Beyond the question of legality and decency in this example is something more important: How can government function when its key figures are having to deal with these intrusions from the shadows? How many hours of the day was Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer but planning for a transition to Prime Minister, involved in dealing with the emotional fallout? How did it affect his performance and relationships with others? The former PM was notoriously volatile — did this make him even more so?
Beyond the specifics offered by Gordon Brown there are other troubling allegations relating to Britain's national security. Labour MP Denis MacShane served as Minister for Europe in Tony Blair's cabinet from 2002-2005. The Murdoch papers are notoriously anti-EU. Glen Mulcaire, the private investigator who did much of the hacking for the News of the World, obtained information on MacShane.
In an e-mail interview, MacShane says police have recently shown him pages from Mulcaire's logs. The investigator had made notes not only of MacShane's number but also those of his brother, his doctor and other intimates.
More critically, Mulcaire had noted four trips to Spain. MacShane was involved in confidential negotiations with the Spanish government on the status of Gibraltar, the tiny British overseas territory at the bottom of the Iberian peninsula.MacShane doesn't recall any stories appearing in the paper about the trips. But he is astonished that a private detective had notes about what were meant to be secret missions.
"It is disturbing that Murdoch's editors thought it was in order to try and intercept a senior minister's phone," MacShane writes. "In pre Blackberry age mobile phones were used to convey all sorts of information to ministers on the road."
MacShane adds, "One assumed newspapers would not commit illegal acts."
The other issue of national security relates to policing. The New York Times this morning reports that back in 2006, five police involved in the initial investigation into illegal phone hacking "discovered that their own cellphone messages had been targeted by the tabloid and had most likely been listened to."
Did this knowledge effect the thoroughness with which they conducted their investigations? Subsequent events have shown the initial inquiry fell laughably short of uncovering the industrial-sized hacking operations that were going on at the News of the World. Were the police afraid of reading about their own private lives in what was Britain's largest selling Sunday newspaper?
Who guards the guardians is an old question. The answer that it might be con-men, convicted felons and amoral private investigators is another aspect of this scandal the public won't forgive.
Where this goes now is anyone's guess. Will the contagion in Rupert Murdoch's British operations spread overseas? A Washington Lobby group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), is calling on Congress to investigate whether Murdoch's British reporters hacked into American citizens' voice mail messages.
Tomorrow the House of Commons will hold an emergency debate on Murdoch's multi-billion pound attempt to purchase 61 percent of British satellite cable broadcaster BSkyB. The motion being debated is "This House believes that it is in the public interest for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation to withdraw their bid for BSkyB." The non-binding resolution is expected to pass unopposed.
Editor's note: This story has been updated.