Phone hacking

The phone hacking scandal brought about a cataclysm in UK journalism that is having a big effect on the entire industry.

It is key to understanding the issues of ethics and media regulation in the UK. An editor was jailed.

The affair led to the Leveson Inquiry into the conduct of the press, and new systems of press regulation.

It also saw journalists arrested and tried for making payments to officials for stories. Many officials went to prison, but nearly all the journalists were cleared after “nightmare” experiences and vast public expense.

In the book, The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade said that hacking was a natural development in “a 50-year history of escalating misconduct” by national tabloid newspapers, driven by competition and sales. He quoted one of his City University students, who wrote: “Most ethical dilemmas in the media are a struggle between conscience and revenue.” Read more

This is the story:

21 March 2002

Amanda Jane “Milly” Dowler, aged 13, is abducted on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. Her parents are briefly given the “false hope” that Milly is still alive, because messages have been deleted from her phone. She is found dead six months later.


Rebekah Brooks (then Wade) becomes editor of The Sun, sister paper to the News of the World and Britain’s biggest selling daily newspaper. Andy Coulson, her deputy editor since 2000, becomes editor of the Sunday paper. Brooks tells a parliamentary committee her paper paid police for information. News International later says this is not company practice. Watch it here

November 2005

The News of the World (NoW) publishes a story on a knee injury suffered by Prince William. Few people knew of it. Royal staff suspect voicemail messages were intercepted. An investigation begins. It leads to Clive Goodman, the paper’s royal editor.

January 2007

Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire are convicted of phone hacking under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Goodman jailed for four months; Mulcaire for six months).

Editor Andy Coulson resigns, despite claiming he knew nothing about the hacking. News International says Goodman is a rogue reporter.

May 2007

Coulson is appointed as the Conservative Party’s director of communications.

April 2008

James Murdoch signs off a £700,000 payment to hacking victim Gordon Taylor, on condition of secrecy. Why such a high figure?

8 July 2009

The Guardian publishes an article by Nick Davies, claiming hacking was more widespread at the News of the World (NoW). Many stories will follow but much of the media avoids the topic.

February 2010

The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sports Committee says it is “inconceivable” that managers at the paper knew nothing about phone hacking at the News of the World.

May 2010

David Cameron forms the coalition government. Andy Coulson moves into Downing Street. It subsequently emerges that he was not given full security vetting:

‘The BBC’s Robert Peston said Sir Jeremy had not given Coulson the highest security clearance when he started work at Number 10 to save money but later allowed him access to top secret material because the senior civil servant thought he was a “good egg”.’ (The Guardian, 25 June 2014)

1 September 2010

A New York Times investigation implicates Andy Coulson, based on admissions by former NoW reporter Sean Hoare – who died before he could give formal evidence. It also raises questions about how vigorously Scotland Yard pursued the case.

January 2011

Actress Sienna Miller, MP George Galloway and union leader Bob Crow reveal their phones have been hacked. Police open a new investigation, called Operation Weeting.

Andy Coulson responds to intense media pressure and resigns as David Cameron’s spin doctor, saying coverage of phone hacking was getting in the way of the job.

26 January 2011

The Metropolitan Police launch, Operation Weeting, a new investigation into phone hacking.

April 2011

Three senior journalists on the News of the World are arrested: Ian Edmondson, Neville Thurlbeck and James Weatherup.

June 2011

Sienna Miller receives a settlement of £100,000 from News Corp.

Footballer Ryan Giggs launches legal action against the NoW.

Four alleged victims of phone hacking, including the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and a former Scotland Yard commander, win a High Court bid for a judicial review into the failed police inquiry. They believe their human rights were breached.

23 June 2011

Levi Bellfield is found guilty of murdering Milly Dowler in 2002. He has been trapped into admitted the crime by a Daily Mirror reporter.

4 July 2011

The Guardian publishes an article online claiming Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked. Read it here(note that it subsequently became clear that voicemail messages on Milly Dowler’s phone were deleted automatically, not by journalists)

Nick Davies would later describe how the NoW sent a team to stake out a factory where they believed the missing girl was applying for a job.

7 July 2011

The Met Police say there are a possible 4,000 targets of hacking. James Murdoch announces the News of the World is to close. Advertisers have withdrawn and the brand is considered “toxic”. But it also jeopardises News International’s bid to buy out BSkyB.

8 July 2011

David Cameron announces an inquiry into the hacking scandal. Lord Justice Leveson is later appointed as its chairman.

10 July 2011

The News of the World publishes its final edition after 168 years.

The day before, MP George Galloway vented his feelings about the Murdoch empire (note that it subsequently became clear that voicemail messages on Milly Dowler’s phone were deleted automatically, not by journalists). 

15 July

News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks resigns. Les Hinton, her predecessor, follows hours later in New York.

16 July

Rupert Murdoch takes out full-page adverts in UK national papers, saying: “We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred”.

Sir Paul Stephenson, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, resigns.

17 July

Brooks arrested in relation to phone hacking.

18 July 2011

MPs are recalled from their summer break to debate the scandal.

Assistant Commissioner John Yates resigns from the Metropolitan Police on threat of suspension by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. He had overseen the force’s original hacking investigations, which ignored a vast quantity of evidence; he gave assurances that victims had been notified, when few had been.

19 July

James and Rupert Murdoch appear before a House of Commons select committee. Watch video (1 min 22 secs)

However, he also receives sympathy because a foam pie was thrown in his face. The pie-thrower was jailed and ordered to pay a victim surcharge (£15).

28 July

Reports say the News of the World eavesdropped on calls to the mother of Sarah Payne, who had been abducted and killed at the age of eight. The phone was allegedly a gift from the News of the World and given to Payne personally by Rebekah Brooks.

29 July 2011

Baroness Buscombe resigns as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission over its previous phone hacking investigation, which found no evidence of wrongdoing on national newspapers.

Nick Davies later wrote that the PCC had merely asked editors about the safeguards they had in place, and did not question Andy Coulson. “At the time of the report, the chairman of the PCC’s powerful Code of Practice Committee was Les Hinton, the chief executive of News International.” (Hack Attack, p 18)

14 November 2011

Lord Justice Leveson opens his hearings, saying: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”

Part 1 of the Inquiry examined the culture, practices and ethics of the press and, in particular, the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians.

“Part 2 of the Inquiry cannot commence until the current police investigations and any subsequent criminal proceedings have been completed.”

17 January 2012

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, tells the Leveson Inquiry that statutory regulation of the press is not needed because laws already exists to prohibit phone hacking and other media wrongdoing.

6 March 2012

Two senior journalists at The Sun appear to have tried to kill themselves as a result of investigations into misconduct. The paper’s publisher had passed information to investigators to try to limit damage from the hacking scandal. There was “an utter sense of betrayal” among staff, reports Reuters.

29 November 2012

Lord Leveson presents his report to Parliament – but says a great deal of material could not be addressed until legal proceedings had been completed.

Read the summary or the full report

He said:

“The evidence placed before the Inquiry has demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that there have been far too many occasions over the last decade and more (itself said to have been better than previous decades) when these responsibilities, on which the public so heavily rely, have simply been ignored. There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained. This is not just the famous but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them, truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous.

“That is not to conclude that the British press is somehow so devoid of merit that press freedom, hard won over 300 years ago, should be jeopardised or that the press should be delivered into the arms of the state.

Lord Leveson was strongly critical of the Press Complaints Commission and said it needed to be replaced:

“…it is almost universally accepted that the body presently charged with the responsibility of dealing with complaints against the press is neither a regulator nor fit for purpose to fulfil that responsibility.”

27 October 2013

The phone-hacking trial of Brooks, Coulson and six others begins.

24 June 2014

Andy Coulson is found guilty of phone hacking. Rebekah Brooks is cleared. Read more

30 June 2014

A decision is made to re-try Andy Coulson and Clive Goodman for alleged conspiracy to bribe corrupt officials, after the hacking trial jury failed to reach a verdict.

4 July 2014

Andy Coulson is jailed for 18 months. Three senior executives who admitted involvement in phone hacking receive shorter sentences – one of them suspended.

The judge says their actions in intercepting Milly Dowler’s voicemails are unforgivable:

“The fact that they delayed telling the police the contents of the voicemail demonstrates that their true motive was not to act in the best interests of the child but to get credit for finding her and thereby sell the maximum number of papers.”

July 2014

Press Gazette reported that three and a half years after the hacking scandal broke, nearly 100 police officers were still investigating alleged crimes by journalists, at least 63 journalists had been arrested or summonsed to appear in court, and ten separate police operations were taking place:

Hacking: Operations Weeting and Pinetree (News of the World) and Golding (Trinity Mirror)
Computer misuse: Sabinas, Carrizo and Kerville
Computer hacking: Tuleta and Kalmyk
Corruption of public officials: Elvedon
Conspiracy to pervert the course of justice: Sacha
The total cost of the investigations by July 2014 was estimated to be £32.7m.
8 September 2014
The discredited Press Complaints Commission is replaced by IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, amid scepticism about whether it will be truly independent. An alternative regulator, IMPRESS, expected to launch by December 2014.
Nick Davies

These two quotes are from an interview with Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist whose investigations led to the jailing of a national newspaper editor in 2014:

You’re taking on the most powerful news organisation in the country, and the most powerful political party, and the police force, and the press regulator. All in one go, in one story. That’s a hell of a lot of enemies to make.


In the News of the World, there was this horrible regime of fear, just bullying down the hierarchy, which is all too familiar in newspapers… And it’s a horrible experience for a decent, honest person to be working at the lower levels of that kind of hierarchy and being forced to do things that they don’t want to do – forced to do bad things, ruling breaking, law breaking, or simply going out and bullying and cheating sources of information, and writing stories that aren’t true.

Read the full UK Press Gazette interview here

See also Nick Davies on phone hacking and power, here


Press Gazette on…

The Sun Six trial (autumn 2014)

The Guardian on…

Phone hacking

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