Last week, Britain's Guardian newspaper published an explosive scoop. It revealed that the cellphone of a murdered schoolgirl named Milly Dowler was hacked after she disappeared in 2002. The hacker deleted messages left by the girl's panicked friends and family, compromising the police investigation and leading them to believe she might still be alive. The hacker was someone working for News of the World, the tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. The hacking scandal has now engulfed Britain's political, media and law-enforcement elites. Prime Minister David Cameron is frantically trying to distance himself from Mr. Murdoch's cronies, some of whom are his own cronies too.
The moral outrage is as thick as Devon cream. But this story is about much more than corrupt police and a media culture run amok. It's about power, hypocrisy and revenge. It's about opportunism and political calculation. And most of all, it's about payback. In Britain, Rupert Murdoch is widely reviled as an evil genius who's been clobbering the competition and terrorizing the political class for decades. And now, he's getting his comeuppance.
Widespread public revulsion over News of the World's lowdown tactics is for real. Yet this same public happily gobbled down the tabloid junk food it served up. NOTW has been gleefully entrapping celebrities and politicians for decades, hounding, ridiculing and destroying the ones it didn't like. It became so rich and powerful precisely because the public couldn't get enough of it. Everybody knew it used sleazy tactics to get its stories. Other newspapers probably did the same. These tactics were ritually deplored, but also condoned, until the victims became too sympathetic and the payoffs got too high.
In an epic show of atonement, Mr. Murdoch's son James abruptly decided to close the paper. But the decision was strictly business. Rupert Murdoch has far bigger fish to fry - namely, the takeover of BSkyB, a phenomenally profitable satellite TV outfit. The deal was all but done, but now the British government has kicked the matter to the broadcast regulator, asking it whether Mr. Murdoch is a "fit and proper" owner.
Britain's political elites have both sucked up to Mr. Murdoch and despised him. They're convinced they need him to get elected, and they're terrified that he'll ruin them if they cross him. Now that there's blood in the water, they've finally found the courage to declare their moral indignation (and, not incidentally, score political points). Labour Leader Ed Miliband, a recent guest at Mr. Murdoch's summer soirée, gleefully denounced the Prime Minister's "catastrophic judgment" in hiring a former NOTW editor (now under arrest) as communications director. Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, who's been shellacked for being too subservient to Mr. Cameron, has shown his independence by meeting with the Dowler family and expressing outrage at the "politicians falling to their knees ingratiating themselves with media moguls."
Mr. Murdoch is definitely guilty of giving people what they wanted. So is the flame-haired Rebekah Brooks, his protegé, who became the bosom buddy of everyone from Cherie Blair to Mr. Cameron. Although Ms. Brooks denies knowledge of specific crimes, it's impossible to imagine she had no clue how her paper's sensational scoops were produced.
But Mr. Murdoch's biggest crime was to be a ruthless bully who had acquired too much power. And that - not hacking a dead girl's phone - is why so many people are so eager to bring him down.